Free choice is one of the foundations of Judaism. G-d gave us the capacity to decide between right and wrong, and it is this freedom to choose that enables human beings to change. Ultimately, we have been given the sacred ability to alter the course of our lives. And, as read in this week’s parsha, our Creator placed choice before us. G-d is invested in us and cares about the lives we lead, rooting for us to make the right decisions and to be our best selves.
One of the foundations of Judaism is free choice. G-d gave us the capacity to decide between right and wrong, and it is this freedom to choose that enables human beings to change.
The parsha we read this Shabbat is Re’eh. According to the Rambam, the parsha outlines this principle of free choice when it says: “See – I place before you today the blessing and the curse. The blessing if you will listen to the commandments of G-d, and the curse if you will not.” (Devarim, 11:26)
One of the great codifiers of Torah Law, the Rambam, grouped the 613 commandments into different chapters, and further systemised them in different books and sections. His structure is magnificent. Yet there is something highly unusual about the way he codifies the principle of free choice.
The opening book of the Rambam’s great codification is entitled: Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah – The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah. There he sets out Judaism’s foundational principles – belief in G-d, G-d’s unity, love and fear of G-d, and others. Curiously, though, he places his discussion of this foundational principle of free choice in a later book, Hilchot Teshuva – The Laws of Repentance.
The Rambam himself explains that free choice is a foundational principle of the Torah. Judaism consists of 613 commandments that operate within a system of reward and punishment as well as personal accountability – all of which are predicated on our ability to choose between performing the mitzvot, adhering to the will of our Creator, or not. Without this fundamental freedom to choose, the entire Torah is meaningless. So why does the Rambam deal with free choice in The Laws of Repentance, rather than in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah?
We are now approaching Rosh Chodesh Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah – the New Year – the Day of Judgment, and 40 days before Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. It is a time of preparation for these “Days of Awe”, as they are called. A time of introspection; of examining our lives and resolving – by taking concrete action – to improve ourselves. This entire period is geared towards personal change. It is geared towards teshuva.
“Repentance” is actually an inadequate translation of the word teshuva. Essentially, teshuva is about the human capacity to change. Literally “to return”, doing real teshuva is to change the past and return to a state of goodness. If we come before G-d openly and honestly, and make a full account of our mistakes; if we regret them, and resolve to correct them and demonstrate that our desire to improve ourselves is real, then we actually emerge from that as new people – as if the past is erased.
The Rambam’s inclusion of free will in the section on teshuva is a comment on the central importance free will plays in activating such transformation. Real personal change is only possible if we believe in free choice. Transformation is deeply connected to individual freedom to make decisions about changing direction.
There are two kinds of teshuva. Sometimes repentance can be driven by factors such as fear or guilt, or adverse circumstances. This repentance certainly takes effect, but its impact is more muted. There’s a reluctance, a reactivity, that holds back teshuva’s true transformative power. On the other hand, teshuva that is driven by free will – in the sense of a deep, internal desire to change, a proactivity – becomes truly transformational.
Ultimately, we have the freedom – and the capability – to alter the course of our lives. Change is possible. Teshuva is change you can believe in. And doing either good or bad is a choice we actively have to make. It’s not something that we simply stumble upon. We don’t allow life to string us along. G-d has placed before us a blessing and a curse. Says the verse, it’s up to us to “see” them; to understand our options; to weigh them up and carefully select the best path for us to travel.
The Sforno, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages, says the verse is also telling us that the choice is stark – it’s either a “blessing or curse”, good or bad. There are only two paths to take – black or white. There is no grey.
Often, it seems there is. But really, that’s an illusion. There are two ways to make grey: mixing together black and white paint, or weaving together black and white thread so tightly that the end product looks grey from a distance. The paint is indeed a new colour – it is grey. The fabric, however, remains two colours: black and white. Any perception of grey is an illusion. Life is like the thread. It’s hard sometimes to separate right from wrong. But they’re there, whether we can clearly distinguish between them or not. There is no moral third path. There is no grey.
So much of halacha, Jewish law, is devoted to life’s finer details. The murky areas that resemble grey. Halacha literally means “to walk” or “go”. In any given situation, where do we go? What is the right thing to do? It’s not an easy question to answer. This is why, when the correct path isn’t so clear, we turn to our rabbis who are experts in halacha and can delve into the fine details of the sources, navigating the intricacies of G-d’s will and disentangling the finely woven threads. And we need them to be disentangled so that we can make clear choices and take the correct path.
The Baal Haturim adds that, while the rest of the verse is in the plural, the word re’eh, “see”, is singular, addressing each individual and not the people as a whole. The reason for this, he says, is that we can’t hide in the group; each of us has the freedom and responsibility to make our own moral decisions, and each of us, therefore, stands accountable for those decisions.
The other message of these opening lines is that G-d places the choice before us. He devised a system of moral and spiritual laws and principles – the Torah – because He is interested in how we lead our lives. He is invested in us and cares about the choices we make, rooting for us to make the right decisions and be our best selves.
We see this also in G-d’s use of the first person: “Anochi notein lifneichem” – “I place before you…” And again in the Ten Commandments: “Anochi Hashem Elokecha” – “I am the Lord your G-d.”
G-d has made Himself One with the Torah’s mitzvot; he is personally invested in the choices we make.
And there is a real, direct relationship here. G-d addresses us directly, and we address Him in the same way. In the blessings we recite, we say: “Baruch Atah…” – “Blessed are You…”. We engage directly with G-d. The immediacy of this relationship is particularly felt during the month of Elul. The word Elul itself is spelt aleph, lamed, vav, lamed – an acronym for the famous verse from King Solomon’s Song of Songs – “Ani Ledodi V’Dodi Li” – “I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me.” G-d says, I am with you and you are with Me.
That the Creator of the Universe is interested in our lives and cares about us is a great comfort, but it also places a solemn responsibility on us. It’s an act of faith on G-d’s part to give us the freedom to choose between right and wrong. Sometimes we will fail and sometimes we will succeed. But the decision is ours. Do we rise to the challenge? Take our choices seriously? Embrace our G-d-given gift of freedom and use it to elevate ourselves?
In navigating the challenging moral choices we make every day, let us draw strength from the fact that the Infinite One loves us infinitely. And let us choose the life of blessing – the life He wants for us.