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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-12:10) – The Price of Freewill

>In our Jewish tradition, one of the things which is always said to distinguish us from the angels is the fact that we have freewill. We have a choice. We can choose to obey God’s laws and commandments, or we can choose to ignore and reject them. Humanity’s possession of freewill is therefore one of the key things which defines us, distinguishing us from angels and also the other animals, who act without the same autonomy.

In this week’s Torah portion God offers us an incentive related to the way in which we behave. The choice appears simple enough; blessing on one side and curse on the other. ‘Blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God’ (Deuteronomy 11:27-28). God sets up a clear system of reward and punishment. If we obey God’s commands we will be blessed, and if we disobey we will be cursed.

It would be a simple world if this system actually worked. The Torah portion appears to suggest that good people will prosper and bad people will suffer as a result of God’s intervention. Unfortunately we rarely see a thunderbolt from the heavens striking down those who are evil, and we often see good people suffering. Rabbi Harold Kushner considered this problem in his celebrated book: ‘When bad things happen to good people’ – the evidence from the world around us challenges God’s system.

There is something appealing about a world in which evil is punished and good is rewarded. The problem is that all too often our world feels unjust, and God’s system appears to be broken.

God gave us the gift of free will so that we have the choice. As God will say later in Deuteronomy: ‘I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life’ (Deuteronomy 30:19). Each one of us can choose, and we may choose life; but unfortunately we have no power over what any other person may do. As John Donne famously wrote: ‘No man is an island’. Our worlds are interconnected, and we prosper and suffer not just as a result of our own actions, but also due to the actions of others.

A world with God rewarding and punishing us based on our actions cannot function simultaneously in a world where we all have free will. There is a choice: reward and punishment or free will.

Free will defines us as humans, created in the image of God with an ability to make choices, and choose to do the right thing, or do the wrong thing. I want to live in a world where people have free will. It is a world in which there will unfortunately be injustice, hurt and suffering. But at the same time it is a world in which people choose to do the right thing, in which people help each other, and help to make the world a better place.

We do not follow God’s laws as automatons, we make a choice. We may not always feel the blessing in this world. We may hope that in the world to come there will be a settling of scores. But at the same time when we follow God’s commands; when we pursue justice, help others and make the world a better place, we may not receive a blessing, but we become a blessing. And in becoming a blessing we fulfil Abraham’s legacy ‘through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

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