Yom Rivii, 19 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 3 March 2021
Parashat Nitzavim 2011

Parashat Nitzavim by Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander
23 September 2011


It is all so simple in the Torah:

“Behold, I have set before  you today life and good, and death and evil ... I command you this day to love Adonai your God ... so that you will live and increase, and Adonai ... will bless you.  But if your heart deviates and you do not listen ... you will surely perish ... choose life, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-19)

Obeisance to God is rewarded, and defiance will receive the ultimate penalty. The way to go seems obvious. Yet Maimonides teaches:

“Freedom of choice has been granted to every person ... This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1)

Why would one choose death? What, then, may we understand the freedom of choice to mean? As Liberal Jews, we will not accept the Biblical statements that present such a polar perspective. We have seen evil prosper in our world, and we cannot accept the death of six million as punishment.  The equation does not work, and thus the choice is not clear. The rabbis of the Talmud also questioned the logic of such teaching.  They spent much time and space differentiating between suffering that they did see as a direct consequence of sin, and what they called “sufferings of love”. The Tanakh told them:

“Do not despise God’s chastening, nor spurn God’s rebuke; for whom God loves, God rebukes.” (Proverbs 3:11-12)

Should we believe that suffering is a sign of God’s care and attention? The ideal that hovers in our minds and our hearts suggests that love is the triumph of joy over pain. We try so terribly hard not to hurt the people we love – if God truly loves us, why would God cause us to suffer?

Perhaps the problem is that we are looking at what the choices are, rather than what ‘freedom’ means. Is freedom the licence to do as we wish? Or is our will affected beyond our control by the limitations of nature and/or nurture? Each of us may have our own understanding of these questions.  All of us, however, will encounter options. We shall have to consider the consequences each one may engender, and we will make a decision.

Our portion this week raises much existential angst. At the same time, it consoles us with these words:

“This commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you shall say: ‘who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us and make us hear it so we may do it?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you shall say: ‘who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us and make us hear it so we may do it?’ No, it is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

In other words, don’t worry so much, it is really not that difficult! All you have to do is take a good look at yourself, and you will figure out what you have to do. In these days of contemplation that precede the Days of Awe, may we find the clarity of vision that will lead us to choose life and freedom for ourselves, and all the nations of the world.