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Jewish Realism and Free Choice
By Yechezkel Gold
"I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse, and you should choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19). This verse is exceedingly problematical. From the context, we infer that blessing is associated with life and curse with death. The alleged choice offered seems not a real choice.
The above Torah text is discussing the covenant between God and Israel. The choice of life offered is synonymous with living according to God's commandments, and the choice of death with noncompliance. Many Jews will tell you that they live according to Torah's precepts out of a sense of obligation. They feel spiritually and morally obligated, or, in descending spiritual order, they wish to receive the rewards and avoid the punishment promised in this verse, or they follow because they identify with their community and tradition, because they prefer the familiar, tried and true path, or out of habit. None of these seems to have much to do with choice, either.
Furthermore, the contention that the Torah way is the way of life, and departing from it is death, is not obvious. In fact, many choose alternative lifestyles because they think other ways maximize the quality of life. We believers in the Torah way must not content ourselves with superficial understanding. This verse raises thorny issues, not only for those not yet committed, but for those consider themselves committed to the Torah's values, also.
A further question we may ask: The verse and its context imply that following Torah is following the way of life; that following Torah is, simply, realism. We would be hard pressed to demonstrate the truth and necessity of God's commandments by examining nature. Though the Zohar stated: " He looked into the Torah and created the world ", meaning that Torah is the blueprint of the creation, yet we can not work backwards from nature and find Torah.
Another difficulty is associating the blessing with the Torah and the curse with straying from the path of the Torah. We do not always see how following Torah brings life and blessing and departing from it brings death and curse. Common life experience and history prevent our understanding this connection simplistically. Indeed, Rabbi Yannai in Ethics of the Fathers stated that we understand neither the tranquillity of evildoers nor the suffering of the righteous. It does not always seem to pay to be good.
In a similar vein, in the Book of Kings (8:59) King Solomon beseeches God to judge him and His people daily, so all nations of the earth will know that God is the Lord, and there is none other. The sages explain that because reward and punishment do not occur instantaneously with our actions, connection between our choices and our fate is often obscured. Therefore, Solomon begged God to be with us like He was with our forefathers and not to abandon us: to draw our hearts to Him by judging us daily.
So we see that the ancient sages too struggled with the notion that our fate depends on compliance with Torah. Significantly, they did not retreat from facing this issue, nor did they repudiate the concept, which remains basic to Jewish education. Resolving this difficulty clearly matters for our lives, too.
The sanctity, wisdom, insight, and erudition of former generations far exceeded our own. They provided explanations that people in their generations could relate to well. Our generation needs an approach that takes what we know and how we think into account. It must also be consistent with Torah. Our attempt may not resolve this matter conclusively for our generation. Nevertheless, with God's help, we hope to find a promising path.
Our first step is to understand the meaning of blessing, a concept so central to our topic.The Sefer HaChinuch discusses the significance of the commandment to bless God after one has eaten: birchat hamazon. God is the epitome and absolute of infinite perfection; nothing can be added to Him by blessing Him. Blessing, according to this book, does not mean adding to Him, but drawing some reflection of God's infinite perfection into our world by acknowledging Him as the source of blessing. We call the creation receiving a greater measure of this reflection of the Divine Light, "blessed".
Being blessed is experiential. Beauty, wealth, health, strength, having children, are blessings mainly if one feels blessed. Our material state may aid our feeling blessed, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. A Chassidic story illustrates this point.
Two erudite brothers approached the Maggid of Mezeritch, seeking a fitting mentor. To decide if he is worthy, they tested him about the Talmudic dictum that one must bless God for the bad just as one does for the good. They asked the Maggid how such a thing is possible. He sent them to Rabbi Zusya with their question. The brothers found Rabbi Zusya's domicile at the edge of town, an unspeakable hovel. The man answering the door was gaunt, his clothing threadbare and tattered. Poverty screamed from all angles. When the brothers posed their question, Rabbi Zusya looked puzzled. "Why did the Great Maggid send you to me, of all people, with that question?" he wondered. "I have never experienced anything bad in my life."
By distinguishing between the experiential content of some situation and its material dimensions, we can understand the Talmud's (Tractate Berachot) discussion of reciting blessings before eating. The Talmud points to what seems a contradiction between two verses in Psalms. One verse states: "to God belong the land and all that fills it, earth and its inhabitants." The other verse states: "the heavens belong to God and he gave the land to man". There is a discrepancy about who owns the land. The Talmud resolves the discrepancy by declaring that the first verse refers to before we recite a blessing, and the second verse to after we recite a blessing. The Talmud states that someone eating without making a blessing is guilty of Me'ila, (the sacrilege of having personal benefit from sacred (i.e. God's) property). When reciting the blessing, we acknowledge God as Master of the universe and Creator of the food we are about to eat. This acknowledgement releases the food from its forbidden condition.
Using the definition of blessing as experiential, we can penetrate more deeply into this Talmudic passage. First, however, let us explore the meaning of the experience of blessing according to Jewish sources.
A Chassidic doctrine originating in Lurianic Cabala helps us understand how reciting the blessing releases food from its forbidden state, experientially. Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that in the world of Tohu, a primordial stage in creating the universe, all existence contained the very self and inner being of the Divine Light equally. God filled all of reality and no place was devoid of Him. The intensity of this state was too great to bear, and the world of Tohu shattered. Fragments fell into the mundane realm. This fall, clearly, was a spiritual one. Also sparks of the original Divine Light fell into the mundane realm, where they are entrapped. One type of fallen spark is soul.
We can understand this notion by looking deeply inside of ourselves. We are each deeply uncomfortable, longing for a far better condition than life has given us. We crave to be deeply happy, to be truly loved, admired, understood, to be appreciated for ourselves, to love, to find true meaning, etc. In short, we crave a far higher, better reality. On some level of our being, we feel that ideal higher reality to be our rightful place. Only that higher reality would bring self-fulfillment. This feeling is the spark of Divine Light within us, whose original and rightful home in the exalted , supernal spiritual realms contrasts starkly with the mundane world where we are entrapped.
Longing for our ideal, rightful condition, we realize we must work to change matters, to get back at least something of this ideal state. If our efforts are not easily rewarded, we intensify them. Our craving, our inner soul, energizes the work. Paradoxically, greater intensity may only ensnare us more in the realm of the mundane if in our ferocity we sin or err. Moreover, and more central to our point, if we become too fixed on amassing wealth and other materialistic rewards, we become unbalanced, and the experience of blessing eludes us.
Blessing, on the other hand, is like the Sabbath. It is a state of tranquillity and ease, of spiritual delight where we enjoy the material world with out being preoccupied with it. When our self- interest focuses too greatly on the mundane world, we are trapped in it. Moreover, it is denied to us. When we relinquish this intense focus on the physical, when we acknowledge God's sovereignty over it by pronouncing a blessing, when we connect and integrate the material with the spiritual, we access something similar to the rapturous experience of Sabbath. Instead of being caught in that purely material world where genuine satisfaction is denied us, we enter a blessed realm where material and spiritual dimensions are blended and merged.
Only healthy spirituality renders material benefits true blessing. Being too proud, too demanding, too insecure, too critical, too ambitious, too emotional, too cold, too self indulgent, too self-confident, too materialistic and lacking faith and meaning, will spoil the experience of a blessing.
When we recite a blessing over food, acknowledging God as the source of the blessing and master of the universe, we release both ourselves and the food from the bondage of materialism and all the other negative traits mentioned above. Then we can truly appreciate and enjoy.
When Torah bids us to choose life and associates life with blessing, it is telling us that without choosing Torah life, integrating spirituality with physicality, there is no or little experience of blessing. Each commandment directs our energies in a manner conducive to receiving the holy Light. More generally, simply accepting God's sovereignty brings reality and experience into focus. There is neither too much nor too little involvement, and life unfolds against a background of spirituality, meaning and idealism. The specific commandments render this general spiritual background explicit and graspable. We eat, but are careful of what we eat, not to lose our spirituality in the process. The same applies to what we wear and how we dress, how we spend our time, what we think about and what we do not think about, what we allow ourselves to look at and what we do not allow ourselves to look at , etc..
We may object that all this seems pretty limiting, Poise and balance are a little limiting. It is like weeding or pruning: by removing the excess and undesirable, the plant flourishes.
If we overly insist on our right to do essentially just as we please, we lose the poise and spirituality that enable us to enjoy, to receive the blessing. Besides, Torah really applies to all of life, and someone open and vigorous will find life enhanced and stimulating by highlighting its special qualities through the insights and practice of Torah.
Though living according to God's commandments unmistakably has a sanctifying, spiritualizing effect, we may still wonder how we might know that these are the absolute commandments and, as Torah itself dictates, we may neither add to them nor subtract from them.
Actually, working backwards from the parameters of our world, we probably can not know that God's commandments are true. Torah and the commandments constitute an almost closed, self-contained system, as the verse (Deuteronomy 32) states: "God places them alone". Yes, Jews or Jewish history may awe and inspire those on the outside. When a medieval Spanish King asked his Prime Minister for proof of God's existence, the Prime Minister responded "the Jews, Your Majesty, the Jews". Indeed, our mission of being a "light unto the nations" brings a certain verification of Torah. But the main validation of Torah and its commandments is mainly a very private, personal affair which cannot be confirmed externally. It cannot be proven. Rather, it depends on a simple, totally free choice. It is a choice whether to accept God and His Torah independently of the parameters of this world, or not to do so.
The choice is between two different realities and perspectives. On the one hand, taking life and the universe as they are, adding nothing else, one feels realistic. One may scorn the notion of accepting a system not fundamentally rooted in that extrinsic reality. One may develop an inner toughness (or denial) to counter the gnawing, meaningless desperation and disappointment that perspective often brings. That toughness may enable a person to seize pleasures and opportunities as they come, without spending much time worrying or thinking about the matter.
Alternatively, one may choose God and Torah, a way of life that has worked eminently well through over 30 centuries. Jewish life has not often been easy, but its adherents have found it so worthwhile but they persisted despite tribulations. Living as a Jew means a life of meaning, spirituality, balance, faith, growth, and insight. Torah life is a life that holds abundant blessing.
The choice between accepting God and Torah or denying them is really a judgment about which perspective is most real. Making the choice for God and Torah means releasing the shattered fragments of the world of Tohu, including our soul, from their bondage in the nether world. This is like when we recite a blessing, integrating spirituality and physicality by turning to God and His way, outside the scientifically validated realm of materialism. The ultimate choice boils down to: Does realism mean choosing materially verifiable facts or spiritual blessing?
from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine