“The Big ‘IF’: The Question of Free Choice”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, is one of the two parashiot of the Torah that are known as the Tochacha, the admonition, recording the punishments and curses that will befall the Jewish people if they defy their covenant with G-d. B’chukotai begins with a promise and a blessing (Leviticus 26:3): “Im b’chukotai tay’lay’choo, v’et mitzvotai tish’m’roo, va’aseetem otam,” If you, the People of Israel, will follow G-d’s decrees and observe His commandments and perform them, then G-d will provide the rains in their proper time and the land will give its produce, and the trees will give forth their fruit. G-d promises as a reward for proper behavior, abundance in food, and security in dwelling. He pledges to make the Jewish people fruitful and increase them, and to firmly establish his covenant with them. He will place His sanctuary among the Jewish people, and His spirit will not reject them. He will walk among them and will be a G-d to the People of Israel.

Suddenly, with verse 14, the tone changes: “V’im lo tish’m’oo lee, v’lo ta’asoo et kol ha’mitzvot ha’ay’leh,” But, if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all these commandments… then the terrible and awesome punishments will strike.

Interestingly, both the portions of the blessing and the curse begin with the same key word, “im” if, “im b’chukotai tay’lay’choo,” if you follow My decrees, “v’im lo tish’m’oo lee,” but if you do not listen to Me. Dr. Yisrael Eldad, in his book Hegyonot Mikra, writes that this little word, im, if, is the central hinge upon which all Jewish history hangs. Freedom to choose is a special gift from G-d to the Jewish people. Our Torah does not speak of predestination, it speaks of choice. Even the word emunah, faith, begins in Hebrew with the same two letters as the word im, implying choice.

We Jewish people always speak of “belief” in G-d, “A’ni ma’amin,” I believe. We generally do not speak of knowledge of G-d. Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his Sefer Ha’Ikarim (14th – 15th century Spain) wrote: “Ee’lu y’dativ heh’yee’tiv,” If I knew G-d, I would be G-d! The mortal, human being, cannot possibly comprehend the immortal, the finite cannot master the infinite. Furthermore, the word “belief” itself, in fact, implies doubt. When I say, “I believe there is someone in the next room,” it implies that I am not certain. There may be many indications, but there is no conclusive proof. I hear footsteps, I hear noises, I hear speaking, but since I do not see the source of the sounds, I cannot be absolutely certain. Similarly, there is no conclusive proof of G-d’s existence. For thousands of years, people have been trying to prove G-d’s existence. Saint Anselem, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides — and although a persuasive case can be made for G-d’s existence from many different disciplines, there are only indications, but no conclusive proofs.

In fact, Judaism looks upon doubt as healthy and constructive. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, records three cases of gentiles who come to Shammai and to Hillel to convert. The most famous case is the non-Jew who first comes to Shammai and states that he wishes to convert while standing on one foot. Shammai throws him out, but Hillel teaches him: “Mah d’alach sanay,” What is hated unto you, don’t do unto others. That is the whole Torah, the rest, zil g’mor, go study.”

There is a second case in which a potential proselyte wishes to convert only if he can be the High Priest. In the third case, the prospective proselyte comes first to Shammai and states that he wishes to convert even though he doesn’t believe in the Torah Sheh’ba’al Peh, the Oral Code. Shammai, of course, throws him out. Hillel welcomes him and begins to teach him the Hebrew alphabet: “Aleph, bet, gimel, dalet…” When he comes back the second day, Hillel tests him on what he has learned. He repeats the alphabet perfectly. But Hillel says, “No, it’s daled, gimel, bet, aleph.” Very upset, the proselyte says, “It’s just the alphabet, I know the alphabet!” But Hillel responds, “When you came to me, you didn’t know anything. I could have taught you the alphabet incorrectly, and you would not have known the difference. So let’s study together, and at the end of our studies, you’ll decide whether you believe in the Oral Code or not. Right now, you don’t know very much, but when you gain some knowledge, you’ll be able to make an intelligent decision.”

In effect, Shammai felt that “doubt” was the equivalent of denial. Hillel, however, felt that doubt was not at all an manifestation of denial, but rather an indication of ignorance.

There’s an old Yiddish expression: “Fun ah kasha shtarbt men nisht,” You don’t die from a question! Doubt, in Judaism, is looked upon as a very positive thing, because it leads to growth.

The Kotzker Rebbe, one of the great Chassidic masters (1787 – 1859), was once asked: Who is higher on a ladder, the person on the top or the person on the bottom? He knew it was a fixed question, so he responded that it depends on which direction the people on the ladder are going. If the person on top is on his or her way down, and the person on bottom is on his or her way up, then theoretically, the person on the bottom of the ladder may be higher than the person on top. If you would ask me, “Who is a good Jew?” I would not say Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular, Zionist, Cultural. I would say that a good Jew is one who is in a “growth mode,” one who desires to grow in Judaism, through study and practice.

G-d has given us a great gift, the gift of choice. Im b’chukotai tay’lay’choo, “If” you choose to follow in My decrees and statutes, then you will be blessed. Freedom of choice is the most beautiful of gifts that G-d has given us. Let us choose wisely. Let us choose G-d, choose growth, and choose posterity.

May you be blessed.