Divine Justice & Free Will

Reʻeh Drash by Howard Streicher

Reʻeh, “see,” is the longest parsha with the most words in the book of words (Devarim) 7442 letters, 1932 Hebrew words. 

To begin the parsha, God appears to offer a clear choice placing both blessing and curse before the Israelites. They are taught that blessing will come through the observance of God’s laws and curses for doing what is abhorrent.  “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.”  Maimonides in Mishna Torah states it is the pillar on which the Torah and the commandments affirm divine justice based on free will to make the choice and on communal responsibility. The commands are given in both the singular and plural (a common theme in Deut., eg, shema). The consequences for failure are so dire that knowing how to follow the rules becomes an existential necessity. And you cannot make up or interpret your own rules – God says – as you did before entering the land. As a consequence, you need a strong central authority to create interpret and enforce the rules to follow in detail—– and maybe that is the idea– to create a cohesive community without an authority ruling arbitrarily by fear or force. And over the centuries perhaps we have adapted this idea to substitute prayer, ritual, charity, and moral behavior to replace altars, sacrifices, and red heifers to ensure our sense of existential wellbeing.  But if we believe that these consequences are based on an omniscient supernatural justice rather than conscience who wouldn’t want to choose life by obeying God to the letter? On the other hand, we all act as though we do have a choice, but it is “to our own self be true” which determines our sense of right and wrong.   

In the modern world I don’t do much to incur curses or garner blessings in any biblical sense. I haven’t set up any pillars nor given tithes or remitted debt, but I also haven’t donated to the sons of Moloch nor seethed any kids recently. So where does this leave us in trying to understand what controls our fate in a complex world.  In modern terms perhaps rather than famine, will we be wiped out by CoViD and tormented by politics or enjoy our health with low inflation and a rising stock market? 

I think we, especially in the conservative movement, are caught between the more ancient orthodox view of following the established rules strictly as the way to obey God and the reformed theology which essentially allows each individual his or her choice in observing these rules. The ideas created by reform movements — idealizing humanity, keeping the theme of individual responsibility without a personal living God who rules the world, are embodied in a belief that present generations have a higher and better understanding of divine will that can and should change and refashion religious precepts and practices. 

This is the fault line that underlies the split perhaps among Jewish sects. Explaining how contradictions can be resolved, Maimonides said that just as God desired that fire rises upward, water descends downward. Sounds surprisingly like Aristotelian physics. It leaves little room for human creativity or progress in accepting things as they appear to be natural as God’s will. Perhaps Isaiah gave us a better perspective– Isaiah 55:8 says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways.”  (Of course, this is the great part of doing a drash – you can pick and choose)

So, as I see the parsha scene laid out right in front of us today (or every third year): Curses on Mount Ebal to the left and Blessings on Mount Gerizim on the right, I am reminded of the instruction —   do not deviate to the left or the right.  On the right, 5 tribes on Mount Gerizim recite blessings embodying our guiding principles and 5 on the left on Mount Ebal representing perhaps not so much evil as the necessary creative force, the yesha rah that allows us individually to imagine, to create, to visualize what has not been seen before (and so the command at the start is to see rather than hear and obey) enjoins us to be strong and have courage 

“Do not turn to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.”  The way into the promised land is to use imagination and creativity to better understand and control ourselves, but at the same time keep in mind the guiding ritual and principles that have kept us together for centuries yet to come.  


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