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לימוד תורה

The generation of choices seeks boundaries

Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald – The Parasha in our everyday life – Re’eh - 5781

Dedicated in memory of the late Mr. Moshe Shrem (Lt. Harel Shrem’s father) on his first Yohrtzeit.

Last week, the Education Minister was quoted opposing Covid-19 vaccination in schools, although this will increase the number of vaccinated children and interrupt the transmission chains: "... but to do it in schools, to put social pressure in schools is a crime!". Later she also explained: "These are children who are returning after a year and a half, it is a very sensitive topic, we are talking about creating boycotts that put pressure on children". Of course, it is desirable that the teens and their parents make the decision by choice, but is this just their personal decision? What about the damage that could be caused if their unvaccinated children became infected and infect others?! And if because of them the entire class needs to go into isolation, and sometimes their whole family as well?! And the loss of parents' working days?

Does the freedom to choose have limits?! Even when it might hurt others?! Is it not the duty of the government to protect the rights of others from those who do not take responsibility?!

We live in a 'generation of choice'! In an age that sanctifies free choice. In this generation anything that smells of coercion is perceived as an embodiment of ugliness and evil, 'crime'. Humanity opened up possibilities, called ‘progress’ that it did not have before, things that in the past were 'necessary' and did not exist in the human 'range of choice'. In almost every field there is an array of possibilities that humanity produces and allows to choose between. This is the case in the consumer, product and employment market, and this is also the case in the world of opinions and worldviews. Mass communication makes it possible to be exposed to a variety of perceptions, and to 'choose' between them.

On the one hand, the multiplicity of possibilities is a great blessing, because everyone can choose what 'suits him', but on the other hand, the multiplicity of possibilities creates confusion, undermines the decisions and makes it difficult to choose.

On the one hand, the very possibility of choosing intensifies the importance and power of man, the 'Crown of the Creation', who has the choice and the decision. It strengthens his self-awareness and sense of control and responsibility for his destiny. However, on the other hand, the burden of difficulty in deciding may be subtly exploited by stakeholders to 'engineer the consciousness' to influence choice.

Objection to absoluteness also creates a fertile ground for the production of concepts that are not connected to reality, not to say false and delusional, growing in number and harmful to humanity.

In the face of the trend of multiple possibilities and choices, a balancing trend of setting boundaries is required, between which the choice will be made, but should not be deviated from.

For example: When a certain choice is contrary to a fundamental value or an important moral principle, or the choice of one may infringe on the rights and values of the other, or of the public, therefore laws and regulations are required to restrict and regulate human conduct, for were it not…  every man would swallow his neighbor alive. (Pirkei Avot 3:2) אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ.

On Shabbat we will read Parashat Re'eh, we will bless the month of Elul, the month of Teshuvah and Slichot, and at the beginning of the week, we will begin by saying Slichot.

At the beginning of the Parasha, the Torah deals with the issue of "free will" that G-d ‘has given us’. In "Blessing" and "Curse":

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃ אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ ה' אֱלֹֽקיכֶ֔ם... וְהַקְּלָלָ֗ה אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ ....

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse. Blessing, if you obey the commandments of Hashem your G-d…. and curse, if you do not obey the commandments (Devarim 11:26-28)

הנה נתבאר בפסוק זה שהרשות והבחירה בידו של אדם, רצה להדריך עצמו בדרך ישרה או להתיצב על דרך לא טוב, הכל מסור ברצונו והכל תלוי בבחירתו,

Our verse here makes plain that the right to choose has been given to man. If he wants to conduct himself in a manner acceptable to G’d he is free to do so; if he chooses to contravene G’d’s commandments he cannot be coerced by G’d. (Rabbeinu Bahya ibid)

The Midrash in Sifrei compares the options in our Parasha as a choice between two ways that may be misleading:

משל לאחד שהיה יושב בפרשת דרכים, והיו לפניו שני שבילים: אחד שתחלתו מישור וסופו קוצים, ואחד שתחלתו קוצים וסופו מישור; והיה מודיע את העוברים ואת השבים, ואומר להם: שאתם רואים שביל שתחילתו מישור - בשתים ושלש פסיעות אתה מהלך במישור, וסופו לצאת בקוצים; ואתם רואים שביל זה שתחלתו קוצים - בשתים ושלש פסיעות אתה מהלך בקוצים, וסופו לצאת במישור.

“An analogy: A man is sitting at the crossroads, with two paths stretching before him, one, whose beginning is level and whose end is thorns, and one whose beginning is thorns and whose end is level. He apprises the passersby: This path whose beginning you see to be level — for two or three steps you will walk on level ground, and, in the end, on thorns. And this path whose beginning you see to be thorny — for two or three steps you will walk in thorns, and in the end you will walk on level ground”. (Sifrei Devarim 53)

On the one hand the human choice at a crossroads is absolute:

רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity”. (Devarim 30:15)

However, not all paths are equal, and the choices must be directed. There is a path that leads to a 'curse', and there is a path that leads to 'blessings' and life:

הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים

“…I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” (ibid 19)

'ברכה' - היא מצב של התפתחות ללא מעצור, של שגשוג מתקדם.  'וקללה' - הקללה איננה רק ניגודה של הברכה, ואין היא מורה רק על חוסר התקדמות ועל העדר שגשוג, אלא הקללה היא היפוכה של הברכה: להיות ריק וחסר כל תוכן! בין שני ההפכים האלה "נתונה לפנינו" על ידי תורת ה' ובנו הדבר תלוי, אם נביא עלינו ברכה או קללה"

"'Blessing' - is a state of unstoppable development, of progressive prosperity. 'And curse' - the curse is not only the opposite of the blessing, and it does not only indicate lack of progress and lack of prosperity, but the curse is the opposite of the blessing: to be empty and devoid of any content. The choice between these two opposites "is given to us" by Hashem’s Torah, and it depends on us, if we will bring upon ourselves a blessing or a curse". (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on our Parasha)

Rabbeinu Bahya explains in detail here, the foundations of 'human choice', as one of the foundations of the Torah and faith:

“We pointed out there that If G-d had not granted freedom of choice, He would not have to “wish” for the people to remain on a spiritual high but could legislate it. The whole premise of this freedom of choice is understood easily by the fact that G-d bothers again and again to command us what to do and what not to do. If we were not free to chart our own course, it would not make sense for G-d to have to give us all these commandments. All He would have to do is to program us according to His wishes”. (His words are directed to Maimonides - Hilchot Teshuvah in chapter 5:1-3) The 'choice' places on the person the responsibility for his actions, for good and for better.

Free will is the 'Torah’s foundation' and therefore its mentioned in the very beginning, in Bereshit, and at the end, in Sefer Devarim:

“Seeing the principle of man’s freedom to choose is so fundamental, the Torah mentions it already at the beginning… as a result of having eaten from the tree of knowledge both good and evil have become viable options for man. The words הן האדם are G-d’s way of saying that man as a species is unique in the universe in that he possesses this freedom of choice. There is no other species like man in either heaven or on earth. …The reason that man is basically different is that he is the only species composed of both matter and spirit... At the end of the Torah too the theme of man’s freedom of choice is dealt with once more when Moshe says: “see I place before you this day life and goodness or death and evil”… Our verse here basically reflects a similar message. Concerning this whole subject of what G-d is able to do and how He has voluntarily limited His options.” (Rabbeinu Bahya ibid)

The reading of Parashat Re'eh is a prelude to the month of Elul, to the recitation of the Slichot, and to repent. Without the reality of 'choice' there is no 'reward and punishment' nor 'Teshuva' (Repentance).

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