Parshat Re’eh - The Power of Choice

Parshat Re’eh – The Power of Choice

Parshat Re’eh
August 12, 2023
25 Av 5783
© Paul M. Hamburger

This talk is dedicated to a friend, David Hillel ben Brana, who currently needs a full and complete healing. As he battles his illness, he embodies the philosophy of choosing life in the spirit of this talk.

This week’s Torah portion Re’eh opens with one of the most important statements about how G-d has given us the ability and responsibility to make our own moral choices freely.

In preparing this talk, it was too difficult to just dive into a philosophical discussion of free choice and what that means. To ease my way in, I searched my files for a good opening joke on free choice. I couldn’t find one. Instead, I asked Chatgpt for a joke about free will.

What came out was this:

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Answer: To assert its free will and demonstrate that it’s not bound by predestined paths or deterministic forces!

I didn’t think that was funny. Nevertheless, I decided to press my luck and asked for an anecdote along the same lines. Here is an edited version of what I got back:

Chickens were pecking at the ground, and the farmer put up a sign that read, “To prove that you have free will, please cross the road.” The chickens seemed oblivious to the message and kept pecking at the ground. The farmer put up an even bigger sign. This time, the chickens were promised unlimited food if they exercised their free will and crossed the road. Again, they kept pecking at the ground. Finally, the farmer put up a massive billboard with neon lights and blaring music promising the chickens that if they would exercise their free will and cross the road, the farmer would let them live. Still, they went nowhere and kept pecking at the ground. The farmer turned to his friend and said, “You see how strong free will is among chickens? Despite all the incentives pushing them in one direction, they exercise their free will to stay right where they are.”

It has been said that humor is a pleasant deviation from our expectations. Chickens do not have a choice to be anything other than what they are. The idea that they would purposefully cross a road to prove their free will or turn down promised incentives and not cross a road as proof of their free will is silly and funny, at least to Chatgpt. Truthfully, we may be more like these chickens pecking at the ground than we think. We will come back to that in a few minutes.

Regarding Parshat Re’eh and what G-d has given us, we read that G-d has created us hayom/today and every day, with the innate ability to choose freely between blessings and curses.

In his Mishne Torah on the laws of Teshuvah, Rambam explained that we should not even entertain the idea that G-d decrees whether one will be righteous or wicked. He wrote that we may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, or miserly or generous. We can acquire any particular character traits. No one compels, sentences, or leads us in any specific direction. Instead, we each need to decide our path. Rambam wrote, “This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar on which rests the totality of the Torah.”

This is the essence of who we are – created beings who can choose how we will react to our environment and the obstacles placed in our way.

Let’s now look at the opening words of Re’eh.

(Chapter 11, v. 26) See/behold, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse.

(v. 27) The blessing will come when you observe the mitzvot of G-d, your G-d, that I am commanding you today.

In other words, the blessing comes when we choose to follow the law. You would think that the curse comes when we decide not to follow the law – that is, the curse G-d has set before us should be the opposite of the blessing. But it is not.

(v. 28) And the curse will come when you do not observe the mitzvot of G-d, your G-d, and turn from the path that I am commanding you today to follow the gods of others you do not know.

This wording difference prompted Rashi to remark that the curse comes when we exclude ourselves from the community, reject G-d in favor of idols, and depart from the G-dly decreed path of life.

This wording difference also leaves a noticeable gap – blessings come if we choose to follow the law, and curses come if we do not follow the law and turn from G-d’s path and worship idols. What if we just make a mistake? Where does that fit?

This idea reminds me of a traffic ticket for a moving violation which undoubtedly was inspired by, if not designed by, Jewish sources. Why? Because when you get a ticket, you can respond by selecting one of three choices: innocent, guilty, or (here’s the Jewish part) guilty with explanation.

Consider our choices in Re’eh. G-d offers us a blessing when we follow the law (we are innocent) and a curse when we do not follow the law and follow idolatry (we are guilty). But what about when we don’t follow the law for non-idol worship reasons? Then, we are guilty with explanation. Yes, we are guilty, but before you dispose of our case, G-d, hear us explain how we want to change and improve.

This level of non-compliance is what we call a chet. A chet is not sin, as we commonly understand the word sin. A chet refers to missing the mark. Think about shooting an arrow at a target. We try, but we don’t always hit the bull’s eye. Sometimes we even miss the target altogether. We are still in the game, yet we are human and prone to make mistakes. We are not rejecting or turning away from our path; we missed the mark.

Although a chet is not a blessing, it is also not a curse. Instead, we need correction or Teshuvah. This is what the upcoming month of Elul is about as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We do not undo a chet by modifying Jewish law and mitzvot. We do not move the target closer or make the bull’s eye bigger, making it easier to hit. Instead, we work on our skills and refine our capabilities to become better spiritual archers.

The opening words of Re’eh are not simply a choice between a blessing and a curse. No, the Torah allows us to admit that we are guilty and take advantage of the opportunity for Teshuvah and improvement.

Teshuvah is a process. It includes regret, remorse, and resolve: regret over our past decisions, remorse for the consequences of those decisions (and owning our part in those decisions), and resolve to change so we do not make those bad choices again in the future. We also need to consider our past good deeds – those choices we made that led to a blessing. Looking at our lives in their entirety creates an opportunity for complete spiritual growth.

This process hearkens to the dramatic elaboration of the choice offered in Parshat Re’eh, which appears in Parshat Nitzavim, chapter 30:

In short, G-d has set before us life, good, and blessings, and death, bad, and curses. Therefore, G-d says, choose life!

I understand why G-d would not tell us to choose death, bad, or curses. But why not choose good? Why not choose blessings? Why did G-d say specifically to choose life? One answer is that good and blessings are outcomes. Life is a direction. G-d asks us to choose life regardless of the outcome so we can lead a life worthy of living.

In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl wrote of his experiences in the concentration camps. About choice, he wrote, “Man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. … Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”

Frankl shared a story of a young woman who was dying in a camp. When Frankl talked to her, she was cheerful despite this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she said. “In my former life I … did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through a window, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” “I often talk to this tree,” she said to Frankl. She remarked that the tree would even reply. What did it say? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here – I am here – I am life, eternal life.’” This young woman did not choose how or when to die; she chose life.

Here is another more recent story. Maybe you heard or saw the story about a young singer/musical artist Jane Marczewski, who went by the stage name of Nightbirde. Nightbirde was diagnosed with a very serious cancer that would cause her death within a short time. But she decided to try out for America’s Got Talent – a reality television talent contest where the winner receives $1 million and a show in Las Vegas. She wowed the judges with her original song entitled “It’s OK” which told the story of her battle with cancer. She made it to the quarterfinals before she had to withdraw from the competition due to her illness. She explained why she tried out for the competition and said, “I still have dreams. … Don’t you want to see what happens if you don’t give up?” She was diagnosed with a 2% chance of survival but said, “2% is not 0%. 2% is something. And I wish people knew how amazing it is.” She concluded her interview with the judges by saying, “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.”

The point of these stories is to remind us that we always have the power to choose how we will live our lives.

As we head into the month of Elul, the Chassidic analogy is that the King is in the field. G-d is more available to us than at other times. What is G-d doing in the field? Maybe, to re-visit the story of the chickens I told you about before, G-d acts as the cosmic farmer asking us to exercise our free will to cross the road, pleading with us to cross the road, demanding that we cross the road. But, like the chickens, we keep pecking at the ground, oblivious to our opportunities to create a meaningful life.

It does not have to be that way – we can choose to lift our heads and change our direction and perspective.

I was reminded of this by a non-Jewish client of mine who lives in the deep South, far away from any Jewish community. At one point, he asked me for a Jewish calendar so he would know what days I would be unavailable. I sent him a Chabad calendar, and after he studied it for a few days, he called me. “You want to know what mah favorite Jewish holiday is?” he asked in his southern drawl. “Yahm Kippur.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because YOU have to ask ME for forgiveness!” he answered. “And I don’t want one of those ‘I’m sorry for everything I did to you’ kind of things.” he clarified. “I have a list! And I want to know if you can tell me what is on the list.” What better analogy can you have than that? During this season, G-d has a list!

Indeed, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite during the High Holidays evokes a courtroom scene where G-d sits on the bench as the Supreme Judge of the Universe and opens His list of our deeds called the Book of Remembrance. The record is clear. The question is whether we will address those things on G-d’s list or just drop in with an “I’m sorry for everything I did this past year” apology. We can speak up and argue our case before the Heavenly Tribunal. But before we do so, we must build our case.

The upcoming month of Elul is a time for what we call a cheshbon ha’nefesh – a spiritual reckoning or personal accounting for our past year, including positive and negative things. Elul is the time for us to review our personal lists and make some decisions. Here is a daily exercise routine for the month of Elul. Every day, consider one positive trait you exhibited during the past year and how you will increase your positive traits in the coming year. Then consider a trait that was not a positive trait. How will you repair that and turn it around this year to something positive? If you want to write these things down as your list for future reference, even better.

During this exercise, have some self-compassion. Remember, it is OK if you missed the mark now and then; maybe you were guilty with explanation. Elul is the time to review, repent, and resolve to turn things around. The key is to focus on this every day. Every day in Elul that we delay our introspection is another day of a missed opportunity. Don’t miss out.

Parshat Re’eh reminds us that G-d gives us the power to choose our direction. As we journey to and through the month of Elul, let us embrace that power of choice and use it to enhance our sense of Teshuvah, goodness, kindness, and holiness and bring these qualities into our lives and the lives of others.