Obedience and Responsibility: Parashat Re’eih Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

Chapter 11, verse 26 of this week’s portion begins as follows:

26 Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. כורְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה:

The first word is re’eich רְאֵ֗ה)), translated as “See” or “Behold.” A blessing or a curse is something you hear. It is not viewed. The text does not mean to instruct a reader to look at something so much as attend to it. But that expression has its own ambiguity. An instruction to attend to something may mean, “go see that it is done.” But a blessing and a curse do not at first glance seem to be something you are instructed to realize. However, the sense is that God has set before the Israelites two alternatives. The first is a blessing and entails obedience to God’s commandments. The alternative is a curse that falls into place if the blessing is not followed with obedience to God’s commandments. What is on offer is an instruction to act in a certain way.

Obedience to commandments is the blessing. The curse is disobedience, failure to follow them, more specifically, “to follow other gods which you did not know.” The instruction is not about seeing visually but about attending and getting on with a specific action. It is about paying attention, understanding and behaviour. It is about listening for the ring of the great cosmic telephone and answering by paying attention to the call of the Divine in each of our lives. Obedience is the blessing. Disobedience, or a failure to obey, is the curse, a curse that leads to following the path of other gods. Following other gods is not a cause of being cursed but a consequence.

Why should obedience be a blessing? If God gave humans the power to choose, if God gave humanity free will, is it not a paradox to insist that obedience is a blessing? Why not an instruction to take responsibility for your actions? But that is just what the call of the Divine is. God lives within us. As the great Talmud scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who died last Friday, wrote, by thinking deeply about the words we encounter and use in our lives and what their deeper meanings are, we both refine ourselves and discover God’s purpose forourselves.

To travel on that path, we do not even have to faith in God. We only need appreciate His works. We do not have to have faith in Shakespeare, let alone love him, to appreciate and love Othello.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Maimonides explains why: If we had no free will there would be, he says, no point to the commands and prohibitions, since we would behave as we were predestined to, regardless of what the law is. Nor would there be any justice in reward or punishment since neither the righteous nor the wrongdoer is free to be other than what they are.” (“Freewill: Use It or Lose It Va’era 5778)

Free will is contrasted with fatalism, not with obedience. One is free to choose, but only one alternative, the path of obedience to God that is a blessing. One is fated if the economics of class determine one’s path. One is fated if the traumas of childhood determine one’s path. One is fated if the psychological dispositions etched in our brains determine our choices. Any of these or all of these in some combination may be predictive of how most of us will behave, but all that means in religious terms is that we are not blessed since we allow fate to rule what we do rather than the follow the spirit of God via God’s commandments.

There are non-moral pressures within us and in our environment and personal histories. But they are not determinants of our behaviour. If we let them become so, then we are cursed. We are blessed if we are able to rise above them in the sense of coming to some self-consciousness that they are there but, nevertheless, we choose to follow the path of obedience to God’s will. Freedom is not doing whatever you like but opting for choice and creativity versus fatalism. “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases.” (12:3)

What then is God’s will? Is it any better than various forms of fatalism? Why is it blessed but the other paths cursed? Why do those other paths inevitably lead us to idolatry and worship of gods we do not know? The answer to the latter is simple and straightforward. Without free will, our paths will be determined by forces we neither know nor understand but only, in the end, help raise them to the status of idols as in allowing the advertising industry to determine our choices and make us slaves to consumerism, or in allowing the quest for security and the power to ensure it govern our political lives so that we end up governed by the laws of the jungle.

Free will is not the absence of constraint on what we choose to do but the freedom to choose the constraints of a divine will versus falling into the constraints of non-divine forces and turning those forces into divinities as the Greeks and Romans did.  The first is a blessing. The latter is a curse. The latter insists in the end that freedom of choice is an illusion and a delusion and, ipso facto, that we are cursed. We are free to choose not simply anything, but between two dichotomous options – slavery to economic, political, psychological or various other worldly forces, or bondage to an other-worldly will as expressed through divine commandments.

Obedience to an other-worldly command does not mean ignoring the fears and desires that drive our most primitive behaviour, the emotions and passions that constitute our psyches or even the logic of utilitarian understanding that allows preferences to be determined by weighing pros and cons, themselves deeply shaped by our primitive fears and our more sophisticated passions. Quite the contrary. It entails a responsibility to know them. It entails understanding the patterns of the past that confined people to the prisons of these forces or the ones that freed us to arise above them. It entails understanding how God, how the spirit of freedom and creativity revealed itself over the course of history as it dealt with wrestling with curses and embracing blessings.

Most paradoxically, it means recognizing that even if God is the expression of freedom, even God can be cursed. Even God can follow the wrong path. That must be true if we are made in the image of God. God can fail. Man can fail. But sanctity is achieved by responding to failure with efforts to overcome our errors.

If God is free to be mistaken, then if we are instructed to obey God’s commandments, how can we be sure that those orders do not simply appear as a blessing but end up as a curse? By getting to know God. We can never fully know the roots of our fears, of our passions and of the twisted logic of our minds. We come to know them best, not as determinants of our behaviour, but as forces with which we wrestle as we try to choose our path. Choosing that path requires getting to know how God used His freedom to wrestle with the forces of nature, with the laws of nature that governed the world of chaos.

And as we get to know God, as God reveals Himself to us over time and in time through the narrative of the interface between freedom and fate, as we get to know how fate repeatedly defeats God in the latter’s efforts to express the spirit of a free will, we learn how, in turn, God learns from those defeats, rises above them to impose a spiritual will to rule over the forces of fatalism and naturalism. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, humorously mused, “responding to the pull of the Divine in our lives is akin to answering a great cosmic telephone.” Answering, Seeing, beholding, attending entails a conversation not blind and silent obedience.

What Jews have learned at the core is that it is through the rule of law that one consolidates such victories. That is why we have obedience to divine commends. Obedience to the rule of law and the rule of law is the path of freedom to rise above our fate. For through law, we construct a human world of freedom and justice.

And it is a human world not just a Jewish world. There is a blessing recited when looking on at 600,000 gentiles. Gentiles may insist of choosing blessings over curses. Gentiles can certainly listen to and talk with God.

Freedom is not a given but a gift. Freedom is not an absolute, is never a categorical imperative, but always a conditional. The difficulty is to work out how conditions modify the imperatives. We need only look south of the border to see how these hard-won expressions of freedom are so easily endangered and possibly lost if we forget the core of the battle. Freedom is an achievement. We must fight to realize it. We must fight to maintain it. And when we see that we are slipping backwards into different forms of fatalism, we must embrace each other’s hands and arms so that together we can lift ourselves out of the quicksand of idolatry.

We need the repeated ritual of washing our hands to remove the germs that threaten us. We need to learn to distance ourselves to prevent the spread of economic, social, psychological and political viruses and to embrace and hug one another within our bubbles of trust. We are commanded to see this day that which is unseen and poses the greatest threat, to make visible what is invisible. We are commanded continually to test and retest to ensure that we have not fallen into the embrace of fatalism. And we have to engage in tracing out the tendrils that either wrap around and strangle us or, alternatively, connect us with others engaged in the same task and without whose help we would not be able to resist the forces of fate. Those latter tendrils must be nurtured, protected and their growth facilitated.

The latter requires the institutionalization of practices whether in our legislatures, in our courts or in our communal ritual practices. We must come to understand how, for a Jew, lighting candles on Friday evening can help reinforce freedom so that we see and enact the world of blessings and resist the world of curses.

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