Even with memories as short as so many are these days, most of us can still pretty vividly recall the Vermont governor and unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was, for a time, the focus of quite a media feeding frenzy; his photograph graced the covers of newsmagazines and his every pronouncement was prominently reported.
As was his crash and burn, precipitated by what some have dubbed his "I Have a Scream" speech. After an unexpectedly weak showing in the Iowa caucus, the candidate declared his undeterred determination to forge on, in a rousing address that culminated in a vocalization that fell somewhere between a Zulu war cry and a locomotive horn. It proved to be his political undoing. That single moment's decision to let loose in that way at that juncture spelled the end of Mr. Dean's road to the highest office in the land.
Decisively dooming moments seem almost endemic to presidential candidates: Edmund Muskie's tears of pain, Gary Hart's infelicitous mugging for his "Monkey Business" snapshot, Michael Dukakis's donning of an ill-fitting combat helmet. Each, deservedly or not, brought a national campaign to a screeching halt.
But every of us, too, comes face to face from time to time with opportunities of our own that, wrongly handled, can likewise lead to places we don't want to go.
And we, in fact, are vying for something infinitely more important than a mere nomination for President. We're in the running, hopefully, for the achievement of worth, racing to achieve meaning in our lives.
In the bustle and haste of everyday existence, it is alarmingly easy to forget that the decisions we make, sometimes almost unthinkingly, can be crucial; that seemingly insignificant forks in the roads of our lives can lead to achievement and holiness, or, G-d forbid, to setbacks, even ruin.
But there are also truly momentous opportunities, when we are presented with roads that diverge in entirely different directions. The Talmud teaches that "one can acquire his universe" - the one that counts: the world-to-come - or "destroy" it "in a single moment."
Potentially transformative decisions are more common to our lives than we may realize. When we decide things like where to live or what synagogue to attend - not to mention more obviously critical decisions like whom to marry or how to raise and educate our children - we are defining our futures, and others'. And it is of great importance that we recognize the import of our decisions, and accord the gravity due them.
We can even, through sheer determination, create our own critical moments. Consider the Talmudic case of the "conditional husband."
In Jewish law, a marriage is effected by the proposal of a man to a woman - the declaration of the woman's kiddushin, or "specialness" to her husband, followed by the acceptance by the woman of a coin or item of worth from her suitor. If the declaration is made on the condition that an assertion is true, the marriage is valid only if the assertion is. Thus, if a man betroths a woman on the condition that he owns a car, or still has his own teeth, unless he does, they aren't married.
What if a man offers a woman a coin or item and makes the kiddushin-declaration "on the condition that I am a tzaddik," a totally righteous person? The Talmud informs us that even if the man in question has no such flawless reputation the marriage must be assumed to be valid (and only a divorce can dissolve it).
Why? Because, the Talmud explains, the man "may have contemplated repentance" just before his proposal.
That determined choice of a moment, in other words, if sincere, would have transformed the man completely, placed him on an entirely new life-road. The lesson is obvious: Each of us can transform himself or herself through sheer, sincere will.
This season of the Jewish year, our tradition teaches, is particularly fertile for making choices, for embarking on new roads. All we need are the sensitivity and wisdom to be open to crucial opportunities, and the determination to craft some of our own--to make choices that will change our lives and our futures for the holier.