Spending time with young children I have learnt about the concept of ‘good choices’ and ‘bad choices’. From a very young age children learn that they have power over their actions and the power to choose how to behave in any given situation. When they choose to share a toy with a friend they make a ‘good choice’, but when they hit another child they make a ‘bad choice’. They also learn that there are repercussions for their actions and choices; when they make a ‘bad choice’ there may be a punishment like a ‘time out’ or the loss of some privilege. Understanding this process of cause and effect, you would think that the children would never misbehave and only make ‘good choices’ but for some they do sometimes make ‘bad choices’.
In the course of this week’s Torah portion the Israelites have their own version of a good and bad choice set before them. As Moses continues to prepare the people for entering the Promised Land they are told: ‘And it shall come to pass if you surely listen to the voice of Adonai your God to keep and do all of the commandments which I command you this day’ (Deuteronomy 28:1). The choice set before the people is relatively simple, will they or will they not observe the commandments.
The incentive to make a ‘good choice’ is laid out explicitly in the text as the Torah goes into great detail about what will happen if they keep the commandments: ‘And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of Adonai your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field’ (Deuteronomy 28:2-3). It continues with several verses filled with blessings and the positive repercussions of following God’s instructions.
And lest there be any doubt in the mind of the people, following the blessings they are told what curses will come upon them if they reject the commandments. In some cases there is a direct reversal of the blessing; ‘cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field’ (Deuteronomy 28:16). While elsewhere unique curses are suggested: ‘Adonai shall send upon you cursing, confusion, and failure, in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed, and until you perish quickly’ (Deuteronomy 28:20).
With this choice set before the people you would think it would be relatively simple; they would follow God’s commandments and they would receive the blessings. But as we know from the rest of Jewish history we as a people rarely made good choices and suffered the consequences of our bad choices.
I think part of the problem is in the midst of the blessings where it states: if ‘you walk in my ways’ (Deuteronomy 28:9). There is an absence of a complete human-Divine partnership. Imagine if the obligations and the consequences had been agreed upon between God and the people, with our involvement in the choice of the consequences. In that situation, perhaps with a degree of ownership over the system we would have had that additional investment which would have propelled us to make good choices. Or maybe it’s simply a case of what psychologists call ‘the repetition compulsion’ where people repeat bad choices expecting to find a different outcome. And perhaps every year as we read the Torah we hope that we will learn the lessons and maybe next year we’ll make some good choices.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: