Those who know me will testify that I am not a person who enjoys shopping. There are people who simply love to go shopping. In fact there is an entire human activity, bordering on an industry, called ”going shopping.” And there are many practitioners of this activity and I am not merely speaking of window shopping, which is an entirely different genre by itself, but I am talking about real shopping – going into a megastore and facing the daunting challenge of choices.
My wife has been homebound for the past few weeks, recovering, thank God, from a hip replacement, so the burden of shopping has fallen upon my frail shoulders. I pretty much restrict my forays to food markets and pharmacies. But even there, I am almost always overwhelmed by the variety of goods that are available for purchase.
Since I am not an expert, I am certain that I always take the wrong item, and the wrongbrand at the wrong price. Now that is truly a hapless feeling but in writing these essays I have always attempted to be honest about myself and about others. So a hapless feeling it is. There are simply too many choices, too many brands of the same item to allow one to have a feeling of comfort and assurance after completing one's purchase.
In the words of the great rabbis: “You have bestowed upon us such an overabundance of good that we are unable to absorb it.” And there is always that “special” lurking at the checkout counter, something you know you didn’t need and had no intention in buying when you walked into the store that somehow now seems irresistible. Shopping is truly a harrowing experience. I know of no one who leaves a store fully satisfied and completely content with the purchases of the day.
Somehow I see in the challenge of shopping a metaphor for life generally. We are faced with a myriad of choices daily. We hardly take notice of those that we consider to be only of minor importance or habitual in our behavior pattern. But when it comes to major choices in life, we certainly agonize over them.
Some choices console us that whatever we do will turn out right in any event. Other choices depress us since we realize that whatever we choose is not really beneficial to our physical, moral and spiritual well-being. The great rabbis have taught us that we should choose that which is least harmful and that which is most beneficial.
The rub in that is that many times we are unaware of the consequences that may flow from those choices and we are unable to judge what is the least harmful or most beneficial. I know rabbinic friends of mine who regret having turned down a certain unique position and I know others who regret having accepted a certain rabbinic position. And that regret unfortunately lasts a lifetime and colors one's view of the profession and of the people that one will encounter due to that decision.
Now I realize that this is a far more consequential and more difficult choice than buying the wrong brand of coffee. Nevertheless, the feelings of frustration and angst regarding doubtful choices, whether major or minor, are fairly similar. We are always haunted by the fact that we, most likely, have made some bad choices in our lifetime.
The great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was offered fateful and historic choices by the then general and future emperor of Rome, Vespasian. By choosing to save the scholars and yeshiva of Yavneh, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai guaranteed the survival of Torah and of the Jewish people for the ages. Yet the Talmud relates to us that when this great rabbinical personage lay on his deathbed, he expressed doubt as to whether he merited immortal life.
The great men of the Mussar movement of nineteenth century Lithuania derived from this that one must live one's life according to the choices that one has made but that rarely if ever is one truly certain that one has made the right choices. Throughout our lives we are always going shopping, facing numerous choices but always having to pay for those choices at the ultimate checkout counter of life.
Thus, many like me may attempt to avoid going shopping, but all of us are, in the long run, the customers who make the final choices that govern not only our eating habits, clothing and other goods and services but also the ultimate and definitive choices that govern our lives.