Parshat Nitzavim: Choosing Choice:

Parshat Nitzavim

“See! I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil… I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring…” 

Devarim 30:15-20

"In a world without Torah there is no reliable standard to follow. In the absence of absolute standards, all decisions will be ultimately based on calculations of utility rather than on considerations of right and wrong or good and evil. In practice, this results in a value system that concludes that it is right as long as it works."

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the gift of free will.

My rebbe, Rabbi Yitchok Hutner of blessed memory, characterized Rosh Hashana as the holiday that celebrates the gift of bechira , free will. Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment and there cannot be judgment without choice. The greatest possible acknowledgement of the importance and power of human choice is God’s willingness to sit in judgment and carefully weigh the merits of man’s decisions. Since the ultimate purpose of God’s judgment is to provide God the opportunity of showering man with deserved rewards, such a Day of Judgment actually amounts to a celebration of the power of human choice. The need to celebrate bechira provides the background to the holiness of Rosh Hashana.


In light of the connection between the faculty of bechira and Rosh Hashana, it is fitting that we read Nitzavim on the Sabbath preceding the holiday; it is in Nitzavim that the Torah endows us with the power to make the free will decisions that serve as the inputs of God’s judgments.

“See! I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil… I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring…” (Devarim 30:15-20)

Our Sages pick up on the emphases on the word today in the passage; R’Elazar said of this verse:


But did this occasion really initiate free will decisions and the judgments that are their consequences? Surely free will is an attribute that man possessed from the moment of his creation. Indeed, tradition teaches that Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment because it is man’s birthday – it is the anniversary of the day on which Adam was created, the day on which he sinned, the day on which he was judged, and the day on which he was acquitted. As the “Adams” of the present, we face our own annual judgment on the anniversary of the first Adam’s birth. As his replacements, we relive his experience. What was so special and noteworthy about the day on which the verse in our Parsha was uttered? Making choices and facing judgment are experiences as old as man.

From the day that God made this declaration, goodness and evil do not emanate from His mouth; rather evil comes of its own accord to one who does evil, and good comes to one who does good. (Eicha Rabba 3,40)

Rabbi Hutner explained that in order to understand judgment we must first understand kindness. Psalms, Ch. 136 is a paean to God’s Attribute of kindness; the Psalmist declares that God’s Kindness endures forever no less than 26 times. The sages refer to this Psalm as the Great Hallel or the Great Prayer of Praise.


Why is this Psalm known as the Great Hallel? R’Yochanan explained: because God sits at the pinnacle of the universe and distributes nourishment to all creatures [i.e. God’s readiness to stoop to our level to provide us with our needs is the occasion for our praise]. R’Yehoshua ben Levi asked: to what do these 26 verses of praise allude? To the 26 generations of mankind before God gave Israel the Torah; generations that He fed out of pure kindness… (Talmud, Pesachim 118a)

The sages certainly do not mean to imply that God withdrew His Attribute of Kindness or diminished its use when He gave man the Torah; on the contrary, His Attribute of kindness was made enormously more manifest. Before he received the Torah, man was unable to earn his own way. He was forced to rely on God’s acts of kindness for his survival; he had no way to support himself. By giving him the Torah, God put man in position to earn his sustenance under the scrutiny of the Attribute of Justice. He no longer had to rely entirely on kindness. He could finally support himself.


Providing someone with the means of earning his own livelihood is a far greater demonstration of kindness than supporting him with handouts. Until the giving of the Torah, God had no choice but to support the world by doling out life through the ceaseless exercise of the Attribute of Kindness. Without the 613 mitzvot of the Torah man was unable to earn his right to life. Each generation received its own handout of unmerited life, amounting to a total of 26 handouts, the 26 references to the Attribute of Kindness in the Great Hallel

The giving of the Torah was a single act of kindness that gave man the potential to achieve freedom and independence; henceforth, he could exist without having to be supported by handouts. We praise the Attribute of Kindness when it is the sole foundation of existence. When all being is based entirely on kindness, we see God’s Attribute of Kindness wherever we look. Kindness equals being.

When existence is no longer based on the constant application of the Attribute of Kindness, we stop praising this Attribute. The Attribute of kindness continues to be practiced and applied with undiminished vigor and is no less praiseworthy in itself, but it is no longer the basis of all existence. The universe is able to reflect other attributes of God that should equally be praised. No longer is everything made of kindness.


The teaching of the Sages regarding the meaning of the Great Hallel allows us to understand the novel aspect of the free will power pointed out by our Parsha. Whereas until the Torah was given the power of free will was a tool that could be used to earn rewards, with the giving of the Torah it was elevated to a power that allowed man to face judgment. Of course man possessed free will from the moment of his creation. Of course he was rewarded for all the good that he did and punished for all the evil he caused from the very beginning. But while he could be rewarded and punished, his merit to survive could never be weighed on the scales of justice until the Torah was given. As a creature whose very existence was entirely based on God’s Kindness, the continuance of his own existence and the existence of the universe needed to support him was judgment proof by definition.

The Attribute of Justice is not exclusively about survival. It also demands that all good deeds be rewarded, even if the deeds are executed in the context of an unearned life. Thus, man’s actions were always weighed, even when man himself could not be judged. Truly judging man means focusing on existential issues, not just measuring amounts of reward. Is man essentially worthwhile and deserving of having a world? Does his existence have purpose and meaning? Is it worthwhile to continue his existence and recreate the universe for him?

The ability to face decisions involving life and death issues were placed before man for the first time only after the giving of the Torah. God stepped out of the existence picture and man started justifying the existence of his world. In the words of R’ Elazar, ‘From the day that God made this declaration, goodness and evil did not emanate from His mouth; rather evil comes of its own accord to one who does evil, and good comes to one who does good.’ Man must survive through his own efforts.


An excellent way to appreciate the change in man’s power of free choice that was brought about by the giving of the Torah is to study the life and death of R’Akiva.

The Talmud recounts that when God gave Moses the Torah, he also offered him a glimpse of the major Torah scholars of future generations. One of the scholars he was shown was R’Akiva. He was moved forward in time so that he could attend a lecture delivered by R’Akiva to the students of his Academy; he was surprised to discover that he was unable to follow the argument; much of the discourse was above his head. Amazed at R’Akiva’s level of Torah scholarship, Moses asked to be shown his reward. God allowed Moses to witness R’Akiva martyrdom; Moses watched how R’Akiva was literally butchered; pieces of his body were sliced off and arranged into cuts of meat which were placed on butcher’s scales and weighed in front of his eyes. Moses protested to God, “This is the Torah and this is its reward?” God answered him, “Be quiet! Such was my original plan.’ (Menochot, 29b)

Rabbi Hutner explained the Gaon of Vilna’s interpretation of this passage of Talmud. Rashi (Genesis 1:1) quotes the Yalkut:

God originally intended to create the world with the attribute of Justice. He saw that it wouldn’t last and He tempered the justice with mercy. The Midrash would appear to be saying that God discovered His mistake and therefore changed His plan, a proposition that bears on sacrilege. The Gaon explained that the Midrash never meant to imply that God changed His policies or intentions. The world is still based on the attribute of Justice as originally intended.


But justice requires the unhampered exercise of free will. If everyday reality were to reflect the principles of pure justice, every action would be rewarded or punished instantaneously. A reality in which the consequences of free will decisions are so clearly evident would negate the very existence of free will and entirely block any possible application of the Attribute of Justice. God can only practice justice if He first practices mercy. In a reality where justice is tempered with mercy, the consequences of actions are not immediately apparent. There is room for a person to make free will decisions, and it is therefore possible to ultimately judge him.

But the actions that are undertaken to carry out free will decisions have the effect of changing the people who perform them. R’Akiva’s free will decisions, made over the course of his life, altered and perfected his character so that by the time he reached the end of his life, he had become totally incapable of making any decision that would be contrary in any way to God’s will. He had used his free will to wipe out his free will.

Because R’Akiva had raised himself to a spiritual level where his will and God’s will became indistinguishable, he could be safely placed into a reality that functioned by the rules of pure justice without limiting the power of his free will in the slightest. You cannot limit something that no longer exists. He could survive in a world of absolute justice, where even the slightest application of the Attribute of mercy was totally banned. R’ Akiva was a truly independent human being. He existed as of right; he accepted no handouts whatsoever.


This is a remarkable idea. The object of free will is to nullify this very same free will by applying its power properly. R’ Akiva, the ultimate tzadik, righteous person, reached the level of inner clarity and commitment through his own free will decisions that made it positively inconceivable to decide to do anything against God’s will. The existential opposite to R’ Akiva is the person who uproots the desire toward good in his heart to such an extent, that he becomes incapable of choosing to carry out God’s will.

The purpose of our existence in this world where choices are possible is to change our essence. We do not need the commandments of the Torah to earn reward. Anyone can earn his reward by simply being a good person who goes about doing good and behaves morally according to his understanding. The reason we need Torah and mitzvot is because we aren’t interested in simply being rewarded and showered with kindness. Our aim is to change our essence so that it is totally focused on life and the good and utterly rejects death and the evil. We want to lose our free will. We want to live independently in the world of pure Justice on the strength of our own deeds without soliciting any help from God’s Attribute of Kindness.


There are two sorts of free will choices even in the post-Torah world.

Rabbi Dessler compares human life to a long drawn out war between two powerful armies. The territory that is actually being fought over is at the front where the armies confront each other and fierce battles rage. Behind the front lines, each army has territory that is entirely under its control. The side that ultimately wins the war will claim the entire territory of the vanquished, including the portion that was behind the front lines, but as long as the war rages and the outcome remains unsettled, such territory is not directly in contention.

Similarly, every human being has a good side; a nobility of character fashioned by combining his own innate good nature with the positive values instilled by his upbringing and education. This nobility is clearly not the product of his own efforts, but it pushes him to performing good deeds, and allows him to do a great deal of good without struggling to change his character. This tendency to good that is a part of our characters is the territory behind the front lines of the good army.


It is important to realize that one can do only good throughout his entire life and yet remain substantially identical spiritually to the person he was when he began to exercise his free will. Following the drive toward the good that is a part of our natures by the time we reach adulthood allows us to be good people without struggling to change ourselves at all. In terms of the ideas we are discussing, we can easily live out our entire existence in the pre-Torah sort of world where all existence is supported by the Attribute of Kindness. After all, none of us fashion our own natures; our natures are supplied to us ready made by God, and are pure manifestations of His Attribute of Kindness. You have to man the front lines and struggle with yourself to gain entry into the universe of Justice.


Let us bring the sort of free will decisions we are talking about down to earth with the help of an illustration. Our sages instruct us to learn from Tamar that it is preferable to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to publicly embarrass another person. (Baba Metzia 59a) In the story as recounted in Genesis 38, when Yehuda was about to have her burned at the stake for adultery, Tamar did not save herself by protesting that she was carrying his child. She preferred to go to her death rather than embarrass Yehuda. She pleaded with him to recognize his belongings and acknowledge her innocence, but she absolutely refused to expose him.

The Maharal explains: publicly embarrassing someone is very similar to killing him. To forfeit prestige, social standing and reputation is a sort of spiritual death. A human being is not only a living organism, but is also an image of God. He serves as God’s image in terms of his spiritual qualities; the only portion of his physical self where these spiritual qualities are in evidence is in his face. Just as physical death is evidenced by the draining of color due to the loss of circulation, the spiritual death due to embarrassment can be detected by the face turning pale, a phenomenon caused by the diminishing of the blood supply to the face. Hence the comparison made by the Sages between causing embarrassment and causing death.


If the average person were presented with the choice of saving his physical life by burning another person at the stake, we would not be astonished if he chose death under the circumstances. Indeed, given these conditions, most of us would weigh the option of submitting to death quite seriously ourselves. The sense of right and wrong required to make this type of choice is behind the front lines of our characters. If we decided to submit to death rather than actively murdering a fellow human being, we would be performing a good deed of enormous proportions that would surely earn us tons of reward. Nevertheless, such a choice, no matter how much determination is required to make it does not require struggling with our characters; we were raised to refrain from murder even at the expense of our lives. All that is called for is the courage to live up to our convictions.


Tamar went beyond this line. She perceived the loss of status that Yehuda would experience if she exposed him as the sort of hypocrite who consorts with harlots himself but is prepared to execute his daughter-in-law for having relations with another man long after her husband had died in the name of moral purity as a sort of death. She was simply unable to bring herself to cause any sort of death. By struggling to push forward the front lines of her character into enemy territory, she raised her sensitivity to the sanctity of human life to a degree that rendered her incapable of choosing to inflict the sort of harm that could even be remotely compared to death on another human being. At her stage of spiritual development there was no difference between her horror of causing a fellow human being public embarrassment or causing his death.

By exercising her free will she had lost it. Her mind may have told her that under the circumstances she should really expose Yehuda. Saving him from embarrassment was surely not worth the price of two human lives, but she had lost her ability to inflict any sort of death on others, at any cost. She had used her life to move the front lines in her soul far into enemy territory. It was up to God to save her. Hers was a free will decision in the highest sense of the word.


To achieve this sort of moral victory in the battle against evil we need the Torah.

Let us try to imagine how you would go about changing your character without it. Lacking a Torah’s set of moral instructions to follow, you might decide to model yourself after some person you admire. But this isn’t as simple as it sounds. In the confusing market place of ideas in which we live, there are inevitably people, quite admirable themselves, who will disparage the ideas and even the integrity of whoever it is you admire and choose to follow. They do this not out of jealousy or meanness [so they claim], but for the sake of preserving the highest value, the truth [in capital letters]. In practice this means that you will generally model yourself after people who share your built in values and program. It is simply too risky to engage in drastic change when its results are debatable.

The same sort of difficulty confronts people who try to work out their ideas of right and wrong through the application of pure reason. For every definition of right and wrong, there is a counter definition, for every argument there is a counter argument. In a world without Torah there is no reliable standard to follow. In the absence of absolute standards, all decisions will be ultimately based on calculations of utility rather than on considerations of right and wrong or good and evil. In practice, this results in a value system that concludes that it is right as long as it works.

In a world without Torah, altering one’s character to the extent where one loses his free will to choose evil entirely is practically impossible. The world before Torah was necessarily a world that had to derive its existence from the Attribute of Kindness. In such a world the things that are right are the things that work. It was God who designed the world. It is He who set up the system of things that work.


To really change one’s character, there must be an absolute standard that one can rely on and follow. Once God gave us the Torah, real character change was possible. You could safely follow the dictates of the Torah even if they led you to places where no one had gone before. Tamar could decide to forfeit her life rather than embarrass Yehuda. As she had changed her character through following the Torah’s dictates, her reluctance to embarrass him no matter the cost was necessarily a correct impulse. She had reached this level of character development by following the dictates of the Torah. They could not possibly lead her astray.

We are approaching Rosh Hashana and are about to face judgment. Are we ready to step out of the comfortable cocoon of the world of Kindness and take at least a few halting steps into the world of Justice? If we are not, we cannot benefit from Rosh Hashana. If we choose to subsist on pure kindness there is nothing about us to judge. Before God gave us a Day of Judgment, he gave us the ability to make real choices. But we must choose to choose.

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