Today I want to focus on the unifying thread that runs through this week’s sidra and Haftarah. In this week’s sidra – Re’eh – the Torah tells us that Man has a choice: “See, I am putting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God . . . ; and the curse if you do not listen . . . , [and you] follow other gods that you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). What a revolutionary idea: Man has free will! And, just as remarkably, through our choices in life, we are the masters of our destiny. For those of us who have grown up with these ideas, it may be difficult to understand how radical these ideas were in the ancient world.
Perhaps we might have expected that the idea of Man’s free will would have been commonplace in polytheistic religions. After all, if different gods exist and often are in conflict with each other, couldn’t a person choose to follow the dictates of one god over those of another? And yet, in many of the major religions of the ancient world, Man’s free will was very limited, and he was far from master of his destiny. To the Babylonians, we were subject to the whims of the gods, and we always had to fear the unpredictability of divine retribution. And to the ancient Greeks, Man was caught in a web woven by the Fates; there was nothing we could do to change our predetermined fate.
But, in Re’eh, the Torah tells us that we – like Adam and Eve – stand before the Tree of Knowledge, and we must choose between good and evil. Oh, the choice is not so simple. Evil does not necessarily appear as evil, and temptation abounds all around us. Many of the rituals of other religions may appear beautiful and attractive to us (Deut. 12:30); and a close friend or relative, or even a spouse, may speak to our heart and entice us to follow (Deut. 13:7-8). Or a false prophet may capture our hearts with the power of his vision (Deut. 13:2-4) and lead us along the path of destruction.
But, as the Haftarah reminds us (Isaiah 54:16), the Destroyer is also God’s creation, and, the Torah says, God is testing us (Deut. 13:4). Indeed, all of life is a test, and it is our task to learn to distinguish between good and evil, and to train ourselves, for it is through training that we develop the power to resist temptation. To this end, God gives us a discipline, to keep us away from defilement and to make us holy (Deut. 14:2). One of the purposes of the dietary laws (Deut. 14:3-21) and of many of the other laws of the Torah, is to discipline us so that we will have the fortitude to control our baser impulses and resist the whisper of the serpent who calls to us from within, tempting us to taste the forbidden fruit.
Thus, it is through Torah that we are able to neutralize and correct Adam’s sin, and to bring down blessings upon us from above. For, contrary to the Babylonian viewpoint, we know that God is not arbitrary in meting out judgement; we know that He has put in our hands the key to our destiny. He has placed before us life and death, good and evil. And He has instructed us: choose life (Deut. 30:19).
© Copyright 2009 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.