Reeh – ‘Choose Life’: A Privilege or a Duty?

Parshat Reeh- ‘Choose Life’: A Privilege or a Duty? 

In a world that sees relativism and absolutism as interchangeable, the Torah tells us, loud and clear: there is good, there is evil, there is wrong and right, and there is truth and falsehood.

Chana Assis is the Principal of OTS’ Jennie Sapirstein High School for Girls in Ramot, Jerusalem

Our parasha opens with the two alternatives presented to the people. They can either follow the path of Hashem and receive His blessings, or they can stray off of that path and risking the consequences, including a curse:

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse:  The blessing, if you obey the commandments of Hashem your God that I enjoin upon you this day. And the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Hashem your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-29)

Surprisingly, the content of the blessings and curses appears, in great detail, in Parashat Ki Tavo, which describes the blessing’s bountifulness (ibid. 28:1-14), followed by a bone-chilling description of the terrible curses that may beset the Israelites, if they do not follow Hashem’s path (ibid. 28:15-68). A passage strikingly similar to our Parasha, and comparably worded, appears in Parashat Netzavim (ibid. 30:15-20), where Moses explains these two alternatives to the nation. How can we explain this repitition? Why does Moses explain these things twice?

A meticulous reading of the texts could shed light on the stark differences between these two passages. It seems that according to the passage in Parashat Re’eh, the very act of listening to Hashem is the blessing, while sinning is the curse. This isn’t necessarily a system of reward and punishment. Rather, if the path itself is good, it constitutes the blessing, while the path of sin is the curse. In contrast, a system of reward and punishment is presented in Parashat Nitzavim. “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life—if you and your offspring would live” (ibid. 30:15-20). Walking in the path of Hashem leads to a fitting reward, while sin leads to punishment and curse. As such, this is precisely why the precept of free choice given to human beings is stressed in this parasha – choosing good and reward and avoiding evil and the punishment it entails.

In this week’s parasha, the distinction between good and evil is about how we look at reality, while Parashat Nitzavim introduces a new idea – that mankind has been given the responsibility to choose between good and evil.  In these verses, the Torah establishes one of the vital foundations of human and religious existence, namely, free choice. People are free to choose their paths, and they must take responsibility for those choices. These verses explicitly state that reality is comprised of good and evil – that there is a good path, and an evil path. The good path leads to a reward of blessings, while the evil path leads to curses. The Torah makes people responsible for their actions and accountable for their fate. It is through a person’s actions that his or her fate is sealed. This is precisely the difference between humans and all other creatures on Earth, who have no right or responsibility to make choices.

This plain and clear-cut assertion in the Torah tries to resonate within a world that confuses relativism with absolutism, where the only option is to be subjective, and where indulgence becomes key to how we operate, socially and pedagogically. The Torah asserts that there is good and there is evil, and that these are hard-coded into nature. There is right and wrong. There is truth and falsehood. A person’s path could be good and could foster life, but it could also be bad, and lead that person to dark alleys. The Torah sets boundaries. Not all things are relative, and not all things are subjective. There is a proper way. There is a correct way.

By making humans responsible for choosing the right path, the Torah establishes that it’s hard to choose between good and evil. Sometimes, that difficulty stems from the challenge involved in choosing good over evil, while resisting the simplicity, the appeal and the razzle-dazzle of the latter option. At times, we may feel that different interpretations are given for good and evil at different times in history, and each time, this challenges each new generation with this process of choosing.

Occasionally, we may feel that this is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing us today. We truly find it difficult to discern between good and evil. We end up greatly perplexed. The process of making that distinction is difficult and deceptive, echoing the words of the parasha: “And now, O Israel, what does Hashem your God demand of you?”

We often tend to see freedom of choice as a great privilege, setting us apart from mindless beasts. It is a manifestation of a progressive social and humanistic view that prioritizes individual rights and wellbeing. Yet the texts appearing in Parashat Re’eh and Parashat Nitzavim depict free choice as something that is as much of a duty as it is a privelege. People can’t avoid making choices. The option not to choose is a non-option.

“Choose life”.

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