Nature's Immutability and Man's Power to Choose
As Rosh Hashana fast approaches, and the Book of Devarim winds down, we read the double portion of Nitzavim-VaYelekh. Having concluded his review of the mitzvot, Moshe now exhorts the people to follow them, and then proceeds to renew the Sinaitic covenant. Warnings of doom are followed by the promise of redemption, and in language that ranks among the most poetic and moving of the Hebrew Bible, Moshe then goes on to offer the people the precious gift of Teshuva.
In a marked departure from our conventional understanding of this term, the "repentance" described in Moshe's address transcends the personal failures of the individual and instead embraces the mandate of the nation of Israel. With prophetic insight, Moshe foretells the tribulations that will befall the people of Israel during the dark night of their downfall and exile, but also sees the morning star of reconciliation that will begin to rise when Bnei Yisrael finally reflect on the meaning of their checkered history and belatedly commence the process of Return. This incremental "return", initially nothing more than an undefined and tenuous awakening stirred by a subconscious memory of God's patient beckon, will be paralleled in tangible form by the physical restoration of the people of Israel to their land and not necessarily by their return to the Torah. But once unleashed, the dynamic process of seeking God and finding Him will not be thwarted, for it will steadily gather sacred momentum and intensify, eventually culminating in the complete and irrevocable spiritual rapprochement between God and His people Israel. Finally, in analogous fashion, Israel will achieve peace, prosperity, security and success in the land pledged by God to their ancestors.
Behold, I place before you this day life and good, death and evil. That is what I command you this day: to love God your Lord and to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, statutes and laws, so that you may live and multiply, so that God your Lord will bless upon the land that you will enter to possess. But if your heart turns astray so that you will not listen, if you pull away and bow down to other gods and serve them, then I proclaim to you this day that you will surely be destroyed. Your days will not be long upon the earth for which you cross over the Yarden in order to enter it and to possess it. This day, I call heaven and earth as witnesses. I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your descendents shall live. Love God your Lord, hearken to his words and hold fast to Him, so that you will have life and length of days upon the land that God swore to give to your ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov" (Devarim 30:15-20).
Here, in the Torah's closing chapters, the people of Israel are presented by Moshe with the starkest choice of all: follow God's ways and enjoy every benefit, or else abrogate His commands and court disaster. The contrasts in the passage are absolute: life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, God and idolatry, eternal settlement in the land or interminable exile from it. And unlike the opening passage of the Parasha in which Moshe first exhorted the individual to remain steadfast in his faith and then spelled out the ominous consequences of his non-compliance, this section speaks of the people of Israel as a whole and of their collective choices as a nation.
HEAVEN AND EARTH AS WITNESSES
Solemnly, heaven and earth are called as witnesses. The commentaries differ somewhat concerning the implications of the summons. For Rashi (11th century, France) and Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), heaven and earth are, from a human perspective, eternal. As Rashi colorfully puts it:
They abide forever. When the evil overtakes you, then they will serve as witnesses that I warned you concerning all of this (commentary to 30:19).
In a different formulation, Chizkuni (13th century, France) suggests that the call to heaven and earth is a function of their central role in providing or else withholding the national prosperity that is the direct consequence of observing the mitzvot:
Heaven and earth are called as witnesses for the better or the worse. If you abide by the mitzvot, then 'I will provide the rains in their season and the earth will give forth its bounty' (VaYikra 26:4). But if you abrogate my commands, then the hand of the witnesses will strike you first, as it states: 'He will stop up the heavens and there will not be any rain, nor will the earth give forth its produce' (Devarim 11:17).
It is actually Rashi's second explanation that is, however, most intriguing:
The Holy One Blessed be He said to the people of Israel: Gaze upon the heavens that I have created to serve you. Have they changed their ways? Has the sun ever not risen in the east to illuminate the entire world, as the verse states: 'the sun rises and the sun sets…' (Kohelet 1:5)? Now gaze upon the earth that I have created to serve you. Has it changed its ways? Have you ever planted it and it failed to bring forth? Have you ever sown in it wheat but it brought forth barley? Now heaven and earth were not fashioned to receive either reward or punishment – if they are meritorious, they do not receive recompense, and if they transgress then they are not punished. Nevertheless, they have not changed their ways! But you who will secure reward if you so merit, and punishment if you transgress, all the more so!
THE GREAT CONTRAST
Here Rashi, who is in actuality citing from a lengthier passage found in the Rabbinic Midrash of the Sifre ( Haazinu 306), ostensibly asks us to contrast the "conduct" of heaven and earth with that of man. Heaven and earth unfailingly follow the dictates that have been given to them by God. Inalterably, the sun rises and sets, the earth gives forth its bounty and the everlasting cycles of nature continue unabated. Their behavior is predictable, stable and unceasingly without variation. This is in spite of the fact that heaven and earth and their host have, so to speak, nothing to lose. God will not punish them for their indiscretions nor grant them reward for their loyalty. And yet they faithfully serve Him, forever fulfilling their mandate with love. But how capricious, in contrast, is man! Though he can secure his eternity with the right acts or else his infamy with evil, man cannot be depended upon to stay the course and keep the word of God.
The Midrash in the Sifre actually mentions a number of other contrasts:
Has the cow ever said: "I will not thresh the grain or plow today"? Has the donkey ever said: "I will not carry the load today"? Has the sea, since God set its boundaries, ever said: "I will sweep over the shore and flood the world"?…These things were not fashioned to receive either reward or punishment – if they are meritorious, they do not receive recompense, and if they transgress then they are not punished, nor do they have compassion upon their young. Yet they have not changed their ways! But you who will secure reward if you so merit, and punishment if you transgress, and you have compassion over your sons and daughters, all the more so!
Rashi's reference is thus supplemented by two pertinent and related facts. First of all, it is not only the inanimate things such as heaven and earth that keep God's command and observe His laws in performing their thankless and eternal toils. Even the animate creatures that inhabit the terrestrial plane, the sentient but dumb animals that ceaselessly labor for a far less exalted master than their celestial counterparts, even they perform their service with zeal. And in contrast to the heavens and earth that have no progeny to protect, or even the cow or donkey that produce offspring but neither celebrate their triumphs nor mourn their demise, the human being cares deeply about sons and daughters and about their future. How then could one dare jeopardize those lives by choosing evil and bringing harm? Though a person may consciously decide to recklessly throw away his own future, then is often more at stake than solely his own individual fate!
ONE PERTINENT DETAIL
Rashi, of course, leaves unsaid one salient detail that, as we all know, is the most decisive one of all: neither the stars above that awe us nor the beasts below that know nothing of them possess the special faculty that is the exclusive preserve of the human being who alone was created in God's Image: the freedom of choice, the autonomy of being that confers the precious ability to exercise the moral will. How can the heavens or earth ever change their ways, how can the cow or donkey decide to become transformed, if the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and to act upon that distinction, is beyond not only their reach but also their very state of being?
But by markedly contrasting Israel with the natural world around them, Rashi seeks to emphasize the unbridgeable chasm between the human psyche that perhaps alone in the cosmos is charged with God's commands, and all else, whether inert or insipid, that plods on faithfully but unfeelingly until the end of time. To be human may mean to experience no small amount of existential pain but it is also to have the precious opportunity to stand in God's presence.
No doubt, Rashi was inspired by the very context of the verse, for the entire passage is suffused with this single thought: "Choose life, so that you and your descendents shall live. Love God your Lord, hearken to his words and hold fast to Him, so that you will have life and length of days upon the land that God swore to give to your ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov." Not only God, it seems, exhorts His people Israel to choose life. The very world around them, the heavens above and the earth below, proclaim the same message. And perhaps we do not go too far in wondering whether time itself cries out to us as well, for the Parasha of Nitzavim-VaYelekh that so underlines this theme is typically read as Rosh Hashana draws near and the foundation idea of choice and consequence is proclaimed anew.
THE FORMULATION OF THE RAMBAM
The final word on this matter must be left to the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) who formulated the matter most eloquently in his Mishneh Torah:
Every person is given complete autonomy to pursue the course of righteousness to become morally upright, or else to follow the way of wickedness to become evil. This is what the text of the Torah intimates concerning this unique capacity of the human being, when it states: 'Behold the human being is like one of Us, to know the difference between good and evil' (Bereishit 3:22). That is to say that the human being is completely exceptional in this respect, for only he is capable of distinguishing between good and evil, and of consequently exercising an autonomous moral will without hindrance or constraint…"
This is a crucial principle that constitutes the foundation of the Torah and its commandments…(for) God does not coerce human beings nor decree upon them to do good or bad, but rather they have complete choice.
If the Deity were to decree upon the person to be righteous or evil, or were to shape his essential nature to of necessity follow a particular path, opinion, or deed (as the foolish astrologers maintain), how could He command us by the word of the Prophets to 'do this' or 'don't do that,' 'improve your ways and desist from performing evil?' If it had already been determined at the moment of conception, that one's nature would inevitably be drawn towards a particular course of action that could not be averted, then where is the possibility of the Torah's fulfillment? By what law could God then punish the evildoer or reward the righteous? Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Book of Knowledge, Laws of Repentance, Chapter 5:1-4).
The ability to distinguish between good and evil, and to exercise a completely autonomous moral choice, is therefore at the core of the human personality. It is part and parcel of the several essential qualities that separate man from the animals, which are conditioned, in contrast, by instinctual drives that cannot be thwarted. In the absence of free will, in a mechanistic world in which human choice is undermined by determinism or fate, liability to the dictates of a Higher Law and, for that matter, the lofty dream of a Higher Purpose, are absurdities. And most remarkably, the extraordinary ideal of Teshuva, the ability of a person to experience sincere remorse for past transgressions and to earnestly resolve to correct his ways, ennoble his life, and return to God's life-bestowing presence, is a baseless flight of fancy if moral autonomy does not exist.
But there is more. While Rambam narrowly speaks of the individual and his will, our Parasha and Rashi in its wake, speak of the nation. Just as a single person has the ability as well as the responsibility to make the right choice, so too the nation of Israel must correctly exercise their collective will to "choose life", to abide by God's word, and to embrace the destiny that He has set before them. Let us hope that this New Year brings all of us and all of Israel blessing, security, health, prosperity and success. Leshana tova tikatevu veteichateimu.