See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse . . . (Devarim
Free-choice is one of those things in life that we take for granted yet it
is so complicated to really understand. In about four weeks from now, b"H,
we will go to shuls around the world and pray for our lives between Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is the time during which we are especially
judged for the way we used free-choice in the previous year.
Yet, if you truly understand free-will, you will see that only a tiny
fraction of the world's population actually utilizes this G-d-given
ability that is unique to man. Worse yet, most of us that take advantage
of this vehicle to the World-to-Come only use a tiny fraction of it each
day. For, not every decision we make is a free-will decision, though it
ought to be, and that is why so many of us can end up choosing the curse
rather than the blessing.
Therefore, it is as good a time as any to review some of the basic tenets
of life in this world, as the Torah teaches them.
1. The first and most important point to know is that G-d exists, and that
He is good - completely good. There is nothing evil about G-d, for that
would imply imperfection, and G-d is perfect beyond any definition of
perfection man can fathom.
2. Being good is G-d's nature, so-to-speak, to give good. Giving good
necessitates that something must exist to receive that good; hence, man
was created. Being perfectly good necessitated that G-d give man the
greatest good man can receive. Obviously, G-d's good is infinite, but man,
being human, cannot receive an infinite amount of good.
3. But if G-d is the greatest good that can ever exist, then the greatest
good He can give to man is Himself. There are people who want to believe
that they are G-d's greatest gift to mankind, and therefore are arrogant
for thinking this way. However, in G-d's case it happens to be true, and
therefore it is a statement of fact, not one of pride, which of course
could never apply to the Master of the Universe.
4. How does G-d give of Himself to man? Primarily G-d will do this in the
World-to-Come, as the Talmud relates (Brochos 17a). As Rashi explained at
the end of Parashas VaEschanan: This world is for doing the mitzvos, and
the next world is the one for receiving the reward for having performed
them. This is really what life in this world is all about: we are here to
provide the means for G-d to give of Himself to us.
For example, let's say someone came to you and said that he would like to
spend more time with you. He might be a nice person, but you happen to
know that his goals are very different from yours, as are his hours: he is
a night-person and you are a day-person. In fact, there are so many
differences between you and him that you can't even imagine why he should
make such a suggestion in the first place.
However, being the nice, humble person that you are, you don't want to be
rude. So you tell him, "Look, if we are going to spend more time together,
you are going to have to go to the same places that I go to, and share my
goals and objectives. If you do not become more like me, then spending
more time together can only result in tension for both of us."
Thus, from G-d's point of view, He waits to give us His greatest good:
Himself. However, from our point of view, we are supposed to long for it,
and therefore we are supposed to devote our lives to becoming worthy of
it. Life, therefore, is for the sake of becoming like G-d, and free-will
is our most basic tool for doing this.
Hence, on Rosh Hashanah we are actually being judged on how much we have
become like G-d:
Therefore, each year (in Heaven) they judge a person by appraising where
he stands regarding the World-to-Come, and based upon this they judge him
regarding the upcoming year in this world. (Hakdamos v'Sha'arim, p. 61)
In other words, Heaven asks the question: If this person were to die
today, would he merit the World-to-Come and if so, how great a portion?
However, based upon what we have said until now, the question is really:
If the person were to die today, this Rosh Hashanah, how much would he
actually be like G-d? For, this is what determines whether or not he goes
to the World-to-Come, and how much of G-d he will have merited to receive.
The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d,
that I command you today. (Devarim 11:27)
Later, this will be phrased as follows:
See, I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death
and the evil . . . choose life that you will live . . . (Devarim 30:15, 19)
Strange, isn't it? Would anyone in their right mind choose death? Life can
be tough and overly stressful, and the average person contemplates THE
IDEA of suicide from time-to-time, but rarely ever comes close to
actualizing it. So, to whom is the Torah talking? The Torah is talking to
The clue to this is in the wording of the posuk. It didn't say, I have
placed before you life and death: choose life that you may live. Rather,
it referred to "the life and the good," and "the death and the evil,"
equating life with good and death with evil, teaching us that life is only
called life when it is for the pursuit of good, and a physically alive
person can be considered dead if he fancies evil.
Therefore, the Torah is telling us: choose good and be considered among
the living, as opposed to choosing evil and being considered among the
dead. Choose to be like G-d and acquire eternal life, as opposed to
choosing eternal death by not being like G-d. And THAT is far more
complicated than it seems on the surface.
For example, is there a difference between giving tzeddakah and giving
charity? Obviously, the terms are close enough in definition that they can
even be considered translations of one another. Yet, in essence, they can
be considered two different kinds of acts, depending upon the person
performing each act and his understanding of what he is doing.
For instance, many people, when giving charity, consider the money they
are giving to be their own. Charity means that I give my earned money to
someone else who did not earn it, a merciful thing to do, and certainly a
G-dly act if I am doing it for the well-being of the recipient and not to
aggrandize my reputation in the eyes of others. Thus, I must be moved
first to feel a sense of mercy before I am inspired to reach into my
pocket and give, and even more so to give generously.
For a Jew, there are different levels of giving. First, there is ma'aser,
the tenth of one's net earnings to be given away to the needy. I earned
the money, except that it is not mine. It belongs to G-d. In fact, even
the other ninety percent does not belong to me; it belongs to G-d, except
that He lets me keep it, though I must spend it responsibly. However, the
ten percent that I am obligated to give has nothing to do with whether or
not I am moved to feel mercy for the recipient. Indeed, even if the
recipient has not approached me for a donation, I must set it aside for
when the opportunity does present itself in order to be the benefactor of
some needy cause.
Tzedakah, on the other hand, is coming from "my" ninety percent. The
rabbis have placed upper limits on how much one can actually give away,
for fear that some righteous individuals will give away too much and make
themselves dependent upon the community. This actually happened a few
times in history, and there are some stories of this that are recorded in
Nevertheless, though mercy for another may inspire my desire to give
tzedakah, ultimately what compels a Jew to give is the mitzvah itself to
help another in need. In fact, very often in places where beggars are
plentiful, mercy is one of the last emotions people feel upon being
confronted by an outstretched arm every fifteen feet or so. On the
contrary, I have watched people, especially those who are not used to it,
become offended, as if they were accosted by the beggar and made to feel
I know the feeling, but I also know the mitzvah, and rather than remain
tight-fisted I force myself to reach into my pocket and give the person
something. Indeed, many make a point of making sure they have enough loose
change in their pocket or purse before entering the area in order to be
able to give at least something to every open hand they will see along
their way. Sometimes it gets to the point where it hurts to have no
available change and to have to shrug one's shoulders before a needy
individual as if to say, "I'm sorry. I don't have anything to give you at
I've even been with people who reached this point, only to go out of their
way to enter a store and get more change to give some tzedakah. It is
burdensome. It is tiring. It consumes valuable time. It almost seems
ludicrous. But, at the very same time it feels noble, and like a triumph
of the spirit. It feels like a battle that was well-fought and won. It
feels G-dly, and it is, and as such it makes a person more like G-d, and
is a sensation that is not reserved only for the World-to-Come, but for
this world as well - a confirmation that one has just made a free-will
choice and moved up a notch in the Eternal World.
And the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of Hashem, your
G-d, and stray from the path that I command you this day . . . (Devarim
Back in the times of the Romans, the choice was easier. As advanced as
Roman society had become, it was still quite uncivilized. For a Jew to
knowingly abandon the path of his ancestors and assimilate into Roman
society, he had to choose to become more barbaric in nature, not an easy
thing for MOST Jews to do.
Today, it is a different story altogether. Western society has come a long
way, not only technologically advanced like the previous Roman society,
but far more civilized. Certainly many of the bad habits and tendencies
embedded in Western society still persist, but they are not all-pervasive,
and one can live the life of a civilized secular Jew.
Indeed, many secular Jews believe they serve G-d better by not living
according to Torah as they understand it. They see Torah as being
detrimental to society because they believe that religions, in general,
are the cause of most of the strife in the world and cause the greatest
amount of persecution of people in the world today. They argue that, even
if Judaism does not advocate converting other nations by force, at the
very least it demands that Jews remain separate from the rest of the
world, which can't help but result in some form of resentment towards the
Jewish people somewhere at some time. And, resentment can eventually lead
Western society, on the other hand, is designed to be a melting pot of
sorts. Western law is based upon rules that are meant to guarantee the
rights and liberties of all of mankind. It is the religion of the masses,
and anyone can join as long as they are willing to respect those rights
and liberties of others. How can world peace not result from such an
approach to mankind and society?
Not only this, but science and technology make life so awesome that
religion pales next to it. I have to be honest: I am still very excited
about the miniature hard drive I purchased two weeks ago. It is the size
of a sleek lighter and hangs with dignity from my key chain. Yet, it is
512 megs of digital space and allows me to carry my office with me
everywhere I go, revealing its contents the moment it is plugged into a
Inches away from that hard drive is one that is just a little bit bigger
physically, but 60 gigs of space in total. It was designed by Porsche. It
doesn't drive or sound like a Porsche, but it is a beautiful and handy
sleek silver box that is just nice to look at even when it is not being
used. Indeed, the security person who thoroughly checked me and my
briefcase at LaGuardia Airport couldn't help but handle it, turning it
from side to side in admiration. I told him that it was the closest I'd
ever get to owning a Porsche on my salary. He laughed, and then passed me
through security. And all of this for a fraction of what it would have
cost only a year ago. My mind swirls when I consider what technology is
coming at us next.
That's just when I look down. When I look up, I see the heavens in ways
that my ancestors could never have fathomed. I see satellite and space
ships racing to the edges of the solar system that is only a dot on a dot
in the vast universe we have now been able to peek at. If National
Geographic was featuring the average Bais Medrash today, it would be hard
to find one talmid who found his Gemora more interesting.
Indeed, science and technology has put Torah Judaism more on the defensive
than it ever has been before. Yes, there is a lot of evil out there and it
is to be avoided at all costs. But look at all the good that exists out
there, and look at all the good that is also being done out there. It's an
(overwhelmingly) awesome world out there today, and our kids are being
sucked right into it like loose dust into a vacuum cleaner.
Yet, for a Jew to pursue such a lifestyle at the cost of Torah and its
commandments is outright evil. It is no different, in essence, than a Jew
who chooses to be a gladiator over being Torah-observant. It may appear
less barbaric, and maybe it is, but it is evil nevertheless, and it is to
choose the curse over the blessing, to choose this world over the next one.
You shall be careful to perform all the decrees and the ordinances that
I present before you today. (Devarim 11:32)
One might have thought that the Torah means that one must be scrupulous in
his performance of mitzvos, doing them according to the letter of the law.
That is always true. However, in this context, the Torah is also warning
us that we must be careful to never lose sight of what a mitzvah is, and
why it is important.
For what good is the power of choice if it comes down to simply choosing
between what is obviously good and what is obviously evil? That's child's
play, and not too G-dly if we're talking about adults. For, the choices
that impress Heaven the most, the ones that make us the most like G-d are
the ones that we have to think deeply about, the ones that we can be
mistaken about if we are not careful.
It is a whole different ball game when good can appear like evil, and evil
like good. It is a whole different test of man's G-dliness when the eyes
can fool a person into mis-perceiving truth as falsehood, and the brain
can lie to a person about the reality in which he is living and
confronting. It can make friends out of enemies and enemies out of
friends, and drive those mad who see the actual truth. We have so much of
this around us today, and it is definitely maddening.
Indeed, the Talmud warned:
Rebi Yitzchak said: The Son of David won't come until all the kingdoms
turn to heresy. (Sanhedrin 97a)
It warns about how evasive truth will be in those days. Of course, eyes do
not deceive and brains do not lie on their own. Rather, they are fooled by
what they perceive; it is reality that can be so deceiving. It is life
itself, the world G-d made and put man into from the very beginning that
can be so confusing, and result in sin and evil. Indeed, the Talmud
concludes that every day the yetzer hara tries to kill a person, and that
one could not survive if G-d did not help. (Kiddushin 30b)
But, as the posuk warns, this is just to challenge us, not fool us. The
starting point is to know that the only true good in the world is Torah
and mitzvos, and the ONLY way to get to the World-to-Come is to become
like G-d. Whatever else the world has to offer is the icing on the cake,
but not the cake itself. If it brings a person closer to G-d, if it is an
efficient way to reveal G-d to man and inspire righteousness, then it
falls into the category of good and life. If it does not, no matter how
beautiful, no matter how awesome, no matter how thrilling it is, it falls
into the category of evil and death.
It will not make you more like G-d but make you less like Him. It will not
increase your usage of free-will, but lessen it. And, as the parshah's
name hints, this is not something that someone can convince you of, but it
is something that you have to come to SEE for yourself.