Behold, I place before you life and the good, and death and the bad. For I command you this day to love the Eternal, your God, to walk in God’s ways and to keep God’s commandments, laws, and statutes, and you shall live and multiply, and the Eternal your God shall bless you on the land that you come to take possession of. (Devarim 30:15)

Ramban comments on this verse: God warns them again to tell them that they have a choice between two paths, and that it is in their power to go down whichever path they desire, and nothing will stop them….

While the parshiot of Nitzavim and Vayelech speak at great length about Divine reward for following the Torah and punishment for abrogating it, this verse stands out as it emphasizes human free will. Without human free will, the notion of a system of laws and commandments that we are committed to following is meaningless. People would simply do as God wishes like robots following their programming. 

A fundamentalist view would be that despite human free will, there is a clear expectation of God’s will for us. We can either obey and reap the benefits, or disobey, and suffer. A rabbi in such a community could have authoritarian power over his community. The proper course of action in any situation is clearly dictated. Complications arise when we have underlying needs and desires that propel us to disobey. Such emotions, thought-patterns, and beliefs are cast as “yetzer hara,” the evil impulse, and must be squelched, uprooted, or fought against.

A non-fundamentalist understanding of what a Divine commandment is takes a lesson from the verse “it is not in heaven” (30:11). The story in the Talmud of tanur Achnai, or “Achnai’s oven” in which Rabbi Eliezer argues that an oven which was broken and glued back together does not qualify as a vessel that can incur tum’ah (impurity), while Rabbi Yehoshua and his followers disagreed. After Rabbi Eliezer called for one physical miracle after another to manifest itself if he was right, only to have Rabbi Yehoshua disqualify those miracles as proofs, he calls for a voice from heaven to declare that he is right. That voice does speak in his favor, and Rabbi Yehoshua refutes with the verse “It is not in heaven.” God laughs, saying “My children have defeated me!” This verse, as understood by Jewish tradition, firmly establishes the concept that Torah is an enterprise of human beings discerning through logic, through legal precedent, through affirming existing communal practice, through examining the situation at hand, and through moral assertions, what the Divine will for the Jewish people is. It is a system of human beings deciding what God wants of us. It is anything but one-sided or simple. 

We not only have free will, and the capacity to act rightly or wrongly, but we have the capacity to perceive rightly or wrongly. For this reason, we need to think, to empathize, to inform ourselves as well as possible, and to draw on our own moral sense in order to know how to apply Torah to any situation. Torah is not a path of blind obedience or simplistic cultic belief. It is a demand to rigorously seek clarity and understand nuance. 

As we go into the new year, my wish is that we go forward as thinking people, and that we be rigorous in our pursuit of understanding.

Shabbat shalom!

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