Free To Choose (Edited Transcript)
Welcome and thank you for listening.
One of the foundations of Judaism is that each individual has free choice. G-d gave us the capacity to choose between good and evil and it is this freedom of choice that enables human beings to change.
The parsha we are reading this Shabbat is Re’eh. The portion begins with this principle of free choice, saying (11:26), “Behold, see I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing if you will listen to the commandments of G-d and the curse if you will not”. The Rambam cites from some of these verses to prove that free choice is a principle of the Torah.
One of the great codifiers of Jewish Law, the Rambam, known too as Maimonides, classified the 613 commandments into different chapters and categorized these in various books and sections. One of the most important tools in understanding the Rambam is to understand where he chooses to classify something. For example, he has a book on the Laws of Shabbat, a book on the Laws of Yomtov and a book on the Laws of Damages etc. There are 14 major sections with books in each section, divided into chapters, and then into paragraphs. His structure ismagnificent.
A founding principle
The opening book of Rambam’s great codification is entitled Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah – The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah. There he sets out the fundamental principles of belief – belief in G-d, the unity of G-d, fear of G-d, love of G-d, sanctifying G-d’s Name and many more.
Rambam does not place the principle of freedom of choice in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, but deals with it in The Laws of Repentance, Hilchot Teshuva. The word ‘repentance’ is an inadequate translation of the word teshuva which actually means return; return to G-d, to the principles of the Torah and to the foundational principles upon which our lives are to be based. There Rambam says that every person has freedom of choice and that this is a foundational principle of the Torah because without it the whole of Torah is meaningless. Judaism consists of 613 commandments together with the belief in reward and punishment and accountability and all of this is predicated upon the fact that we have freedom to choose between good and evil. And the Rambam says that if there is no freedom of choice between good and evil, then the entire enterprise of Judaism makes no sense. So why does the Rambam deal with this foundational principle of free choice in his Laws of Repentance instead of in The Laws of the Foundation of the Torah?
Choosing to change
Repentance, teshuva, is about the human capacity to change. We are now entering the phase of the Jewish calendar of repentance and introspection as we approach Rosh Chodesh Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and 40 days before Yom Kippur. It is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Conventional wisdom says a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Freedom of choice does not only mean that you can choose between good and evil, but also that you can change the course of your life and, in accordance with the definition of repentance, regret the mistakes of the past and resolve to not do wrong again in the future. It is predicated upon the fact that human beings have the freedom, indeed the strength, to be able to change the course of their lives. Possibly for that reason the Rambam chose to deal with this important principle of freedom of choice in the Laws of Repentance because he was reminding us that repentance is about change. You can change. Change is possible. It is something we can believe in or to paraphrase the slogan, repentance is indeed change you can believe in. It is really change you can believe in because politicians promise change and sometimes they fulfill their promises and sometimes theydon’t, even though moral integrity requires that we keep our promises.
But the real change that one can believe that we have the power and control to change and improve our own lives, and that’s what our portion is all about. Behold, see I place before you today two paths – the blessing and the curse. The blessing is to fulfill the commandments of G-d and the curse is not to. Elsewhere in Deuteronomywe are told, “I place before you today life and death, now therefore choose life”. The whole idea is that we have before us the path of blessing and life and of curse and death. We have the capacity to make that choice and to influence the direction of our lives: this is the freedom we must embrace.
The opening word of this week’s portion is Re’eh, meaning ‘see’. “See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse”. The Baal Haturim explains as follows: What does ‘see’ mean? The portion could have started without the word ‘re’eh’ – see, because that word is not really relevant. So what does ‘see’ mean? G-d is calling upon us to sit up and take notice. The Baal Haturim links it to the next word Anochi meaning ‘I’. He says that word Anochi – I, is the same word as the first word of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage”. The Ten Commandments represent the ten major categories into which all of the 613 commandments fall. So, we are being told that if you want to know the path of goodness and of blessing go and have a look at the Ten Commandments. The verse is almost guiding us in that direction.
It’s either black or white
The verse is telling us that the choice between good and evil is an active choice that we have to seize. It’s not something that we are going to stumble upon: we are not told, “Behold there are two paths before you and you are going to stumble onto one path or the other”. We must see it, engage with it and realise that is the path we have to go on. The Sforno, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages, says that the verse is telling us that there is no middle path in life – it’s either good or bad. Sometimes good and bad are mixed, such as when a person who does a good deed in a badway. But fundamentally there is good and there is bad and they are two separate things. There are only two paths before a person – the good or the bad, and there is no grey in the world.
People always like to say; well it’s a grey area. But it’s not so. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad, but there is black and white – both good and bad exist. The way to understand it is perhaps to understand the colour grey. There are two ways of making the colour grey. The one way is to take black paint and white paint and to mix the two together. The other is to take black thread and white thread and weave them together so closely that the final product looks grey at a distance. The difference between the mixed paint and the fabric is this. The paint is indeed a new colour – it is grey. The threads that are woven together are, in fact, black and white. But they have been so closely woven that it’s hard to take them apart. In life there are grey areas that are like the thread – black and white – but it’s hard sometimes to separate right from wrong. But there is no grey. There is no area which is neither good nor bad and results in a new third path being created. If there is grey it’s because the black and white are so finely woven it’s hard to take them apart.
So much of Halacha, Jewish Law, is devoted to the fine details of life. Because it’s often in these fine details that the good or bad will emerge. That’s why, when we want to know what to do, we turn to our Rabbis, our teachers and guides, who can delve into the details of the sources and decide the good and the bad and take apart the very finely woven threads. The Sforno says the verse “Behold I place before you today a blessing and a curse” represent two extremes because there isn’t a midway point; only right and wrong. The verse is saying, look at the Ten Commandments, at our duties, be proactive and act freely realising that we must make clear choices to take us in the correct direction. We can’t just allow life to take us along.
One person makes all the difference
The Baal Haturim adds that the word re’eh is singular, addressing each individual and not the people as a whole. But the rest of the verse is phrased in the plural. The reason for this, he says, is that we can’t hide in the group; each one of us has the freedom to make our own decisions, to choose between good and bad, and meet our responsibilities and stand accountable.
In life, it’s easy to simply follow what everyone else in the group is doing. It’s often difficult to break away and choose a different path. The Kli Yakar, the classic commentator who lived a few hundred years ago, asks why the verse starts off in the singular and ends in the plural? Because, he answers, the actions of the individual affect the whole. We often talk about society or the community out there as if it’s anonymous. But who is this group that we are talking about? It is made up of each and every single one of us. Hashem is saying, “I place before you,” because each one of us has an impact. Meaning: the exercise of free choice is not just an exercise to determine the course of our own lives but that of the entire world.
The Rambam writes in The Laws of Repentance, chapter three, that at this time of repentance leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should look at ourselves as if we are 50/50. That we have 50 percent good deeds and 50 percent bad deeds and the next action that we are going to take will determine whether we are to be regarded as more good and righteous or more bad and wicked. He says we should also look at our community and society in the same way and that the very next action we do will tip the scales towards good or evil because every single action matters and is of importance to G-d.
The other message of these opening lines is that Hashem placed the choice before us. G-d Almighty, the King of all Kings, who has infinite power and is eternal and all knowing, went to the trouble of creating a system that we call the Torah with laws and placed it before us because He is actually interested in the way we choose to lead our lives. He is interested, and wants us to choose the path of goodness not the path of evil. That’s a great compliment to us but it also imposes a very heavy responsibility upon us. And that is why He is saying re’eh, go and have a look at the Ten Commandments that Anochi, ‘I’ gave you.
When you use the word ‘I’ in a sentence you are identifying yourself with that sentence. When people want to distance themselves from something they talk in the third person or in the passive. For example, one could say that it would be good if a person were to fulfill the following commandment. But G-d doesn’t say that it would be good for you to fulfill the following commandments. He says ‘I’ am the one who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage. ‘I’ am the one who is telling you to keep Shabbos, to honour your parents and not covet that which belongs to your neighbour. It’s ‘I’. He has made Himself one with the Torah in this process, and we must realise that He cares about our choices and has given us the power to make a difference.
Free choice is a tremendous gift that G-d gave us and a tremendous responsibility for us. It’s an act of faith on the part of G-d to give us the freedom to choose the path of good or evil. Sometimes we will fail and sometimes we will succeed. But G-d gives us the choice and He places it before us and that’s part of what this verse is saying; “See I have given you free choice.” ‘I’ believe in you and ‘I’ am engaging with you. It also says that ‘I’ am placing before you. It doesn’t just say that there is a blessing and a curse; there is an engagement –I and you. And that is the immediacy of the relationship. That’s why when we pray we address G-d in the second person. Baruch Atah – Blessed are You. We engage directly with G-d.
That is the theme of the month of Elul. The word Elul is spelt aleph, lamed, vav, lamed – the first letters in the words of the verse in 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. There is a commitment on the part of G-d and a real intimacy to the relationship.
Hashem is saying, I have placed before you the blessing and the curse, now rise to the challenge, engage with Me, embrace your freedom and take your choices seriously, realising that you can choose either a blessing or a curse. And remember that I care about you and I love you. This is the message that G-d is sending to us; Re’eh, go and look that Anochi – ‘I’ gave you the Torah with my Essence.
Let us take heed of this call as we head toward Shabbos. I wish you all a good Shabbos and thank you for listening. I look forward to being with you again this time next week.