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Judaism: Choice and Guidance

This week's Dvar Torah is by Daphna Kannai, former shlicha in Memphis, Tenn. and at present administrator and teacher at Ulpenat Emunah for the Arts, Jerusalem.
Published: Thursday, August 01, 2013 3:24 PM


One of the most prevalent dilemmas which we have as parents and teachers is how to balance two needs which sometimes seem to contradict each other.

On the one hand, it seems important to give enough space to our children and students, so that they will be able to choose the correct way of life on their own. None of us wants his child to develop a false-self. On the contrary, we want them to be themselves, to feel authentic, and to experience things as growing from them organically.

On the other hand, we feel it is totally irresponsible just to move away and leave an entire open space, abandoning our children and students. We love them and truly care for them. We are certainly not neutral regarding their choices and it seems that that is the way it should be.

Our parsha can give us some direction and guidance on how to deal with this challenge. In the beginning of our parsha, G-d tells us: “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse” (Devarim, 11:26). Then G-d further clarifies: "The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did not know” (Ibid., 11:27-28).

The Sfat Emet noted that there is an asymmetry in these psukim. We would have expected that G-d would present the two options in exactly the same way: If you hearken to the commandments, then you would receive the blessing and, if you don’t, you would receive the curse. However, G-d phrases each option differently. Regarding the curse, G-d indeed says: “If you do not hearken”. Surprisingly, however, regarding the blessing it says: “That you hearken”. Why doesn’t it say “if you hearken” as expected? What does this asymmetry imply?

It seems, says the Sfat Emet, that there is a fundamental difference here. The natural sequence of events is that one is doing the right thing. Therefore, it is written “that you hearken to the commandments” and not “if you hearken”. This is the natural order. When G-d created us, he installed in us a holy ‘neshama’- soul. Consequently, when one is doing the correct thing, he is actually acting according to his essential deep nature.

However, a sin does not reflect the deep-down nature of the person who performed it. The evil inclination is something that is rooted less deeply than the holy soul. It is more external. Therefore, it does not represent one’s true essence, identity. Consequently, the sin is not the natural order of events. It is viewed as an “accident”. Therefore, it says, “If you do not hearken to the commandments” – if it just happens, not as a factual statement – “that you do not”, as stated regarding the blessing.

Some, erroneously, derive from the fact that G-d gave us freedom of choice an image of a ‘neutral G-d’. An incautious reading of the psukim we quoted above can lead to such a false conclusion. However, as the Sfat Emet noted, careful reading of these psukim teaches us the exact opposite. G-d indeed gives us the ‘space’ to make our own choices. However, that does not imply that He is neutral regarding our choices.

On the contrary, G-d created us in a way that helps us choose the right thing and this is His desire. He does not abandon us and leave us on our own. The Sfat Emet adds that it is exactly because of that that even after a failure, there is a new choice in each new day. As it says in the pasuk we quoted above, “See, I present before you today”.

This complex idea, of G-d giving us space to make our own choices on the one hand, while directing and assisting us in making the right choice on the other hand, is presented clearly in the Midrash. The Midrash Rabba in the beginning of our parsha says: “R. Chagai said: (G-d said:) Not only that I gave you two ways (to choose between them) but I acted beyond the letter of the law (‘lifnim mishurat hadin’) and told you ‘And you shall choose life’ ” (4:11).

According to the Midrash, G-d is not merely giving us a choice between the good and the bad; He makes a special effort, goes “beyond the letter of law” and actively guides us and pushes us to choose the right way.  The Midrash proves its point from the psukim that appear later in the book of Devarim: “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…” (30:15,19). G-d gives us the freedom to choose, but He is totally not neutral.

G-d serves us here as a great role model in dealing with the dilemma we described at the beginning of this article. It is indeed significant to give our children and students the space to make their own choices. However, as responsible and caring parents and teachers, we should not be neutral.

By educating our children, we instill in them the values that should become their deep nature and, thereby, making some choices more natural than others. We should guide our children and help them in their choices. Only by walking through this complex path, will we create true, healthy and moral people.

Dedicated to the shlichim (emissaries) who have just arrived home in Israel.

The "Torah MiTzion Kollel" program establishes centers for the study of Torah and promulgates the connection between Torah and Israel. These learning centers take the form of a Beit Midrash in which Torah scholars immerse themselves in study and practice of successes in enriching and enhancing Jewish communities around the world by promoting the lofty ideals of Torat Israel, Am Israel and Eretz Israel. The core of these Kollelim are young, recent graduates of the Hesder Yeshivot, where advanced Jewish study is combined with military service in the Israeli army. For more information, click here.