The times are a changing, economies tumbling here in the U.S. and around the world, geo-political movements, Iran, Iraq, Russia, wars in Africa, Darfur, Genocide, environmental crises, the changing heads of state both here in the U.S. and in Israel, and much much more.
So great are these events in our society, that we may often feel as though they are beyond our reach, it is all out of our hands – and yet our tradition suggests otherwise.
Jacob in Beresheit, the Book of Genesis, dreamt of angels on a ladder, rising to the heavens and descending to earth, in Gen. 28:12, the ladder was “set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven”, Jacob had the choice of elevating his soul, or remain in a state of being with no improvement. We learn about this a couple of weeks ago in parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9), we read: “I have set before thee this day life and death, (the verse continues and suggests that we keep God’s commandments and ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply, But if thy heart turn away, and worship other gods; I declare unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish;) therefore choose life…”
Well in fact I wonder what is it that the text is trying to tell me. Of course I want to choose life, wouldn’t that be obvious? So then what is the text emphasizing? That we should worship the God of Israel and not other gods? I can see that, however the text seems to be screaming out something more than the fact that we ought to worship the God of Israel, the text seems to be suggesting that we have a choice in the matter!
Our sources have differing views on free will and the idea of choice; The Talmud, Judaism’s “case law”, takes a heavenly stance and argues that “No man can touch that which has been prepared in advance for his friend” (Yoma 38b), Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes explains that “Never does a snake bite… or a government interfere in men’s lives unless incited to do so from on high”, here we see that both the Talmud and Kohelet argue for divinely inspired pre-determination.
On the other hand, the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, famous 12th century Jewish philosopher and legal writer, explains:
“רשות לכל אדם נתונה אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק…ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה…הרשות בידו…” (הלכות תשובה פרק ה’ הלכה א)
“Man is capable either of rising to noble heights or of falling into a life of sin – the choice is his.”
I believe the quote assists us in understanding what it means to choose life. Our tradition is hinting of another important factor related to having the choice – the permission to choose. The term הרשות בידו used in the end of the Rambam’s quote is translated in English to “the choice is his”. Yet it omits the last word “b’yado”, in his hand, and fails to provide us with another take on the Rambam’s passage. In Hebrew the term הרשות בידו literally means “the permission is in his hand”. In English it is translated as choice. So we have choice, but what permission, or Reshut, is the Rambam talking about? The Rambam continues and explains that each and every individual has the capability, the permission if you will, to do what is right or what is wrong – the permission to do what is right or what is wrong.
So where does this permission come from?
I understand this permission to make choices as a result of those same choices we previously made. The verse in the Torah tells us that we are granted the permission to continue to choose, so long as we make the right choices and choose life and goodness.
An interesting point in the Deuteronomy verse is the acknowledgement of God’s role in our lives when God suggests: CHOOSE LIFE! To clarify this point, the text highlights God’s-self, admitting that we in fact have a choice.
So we choose the life we live… but what does it mean to choose life? Perhaps it means living a life of compassion for others (V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha), giving tzedakah, seeking justice (tzedek tzedek tirdof), or caring for the environment.
Let’s take the environmental crisis the world faces today; if we continue to drain the earth of her natural resources such as water, oil, and the destruction of rain forests (to name a few), and humanity continues to take – only to give back our waste, then we ought not be surprised when earth in return offers a changing of climate and water levels, spreading arid land, famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, and more.
And so – we choose life! While Israel’s environmental policy requires lots of improvement, just as every country in the world – pollution is a problem – we cannot ignore all that has been accomplished by the Jewish People for the land of Israel over the past 100 years: greening the land, maintaining desertification, recycling sewage waters for agricultural purposes, the water-drip system, green houses scattered across the Negev desert, and additional ecological and agricultural advances that rival no other country or environmental organization in the world. And so through these decisions, permission is granted to choose in the form of continuous environmental development and improvment.
Similarly for each of us, when we look in the mirror and reflect on our actions, we will reveal that like Jacob in Genesis, the choice is ours – permission to maintain choice all depends on… well, the choices we make.
Every moment of our lives is filled with choices and every second that passes represents potential for bringing goodness to our lives and the lives of those around us. The choices we make carry consequences – these consequences are what permit us to have the option to choose. As the option in the verse mentioned above reads: “I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil…” God in fact urges us to “choose life”, for in reality – in death, choices are no longer ours.