The Big ‘IF.’ The Gift of Free Choice”
(Revised and updated from Bechukotai 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This coming week’s parasha, parashat Bechukotai, is one of the two parshiot in the Torah that are known as the Tochacha, the Al-mighty’s admonition and reproof of His people, recording the curses and punishments that will befall the people if they fail to fulfill their covenant with Him.

Bechukotai begins with both a promise and a blessing: (Leviticus 26:3), אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֶת מִצְוֺתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם , 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.

As a reward for proper behavior, G-d promises abundance in food, and security to the dwellers of the land. He pledges to make the Jewish people fruitful and increase them, and to firmly establish His covenant with them. G-d 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.

Soon after the blessings and the positive assurances, the entire tone of the narrative changes. In Leviticus 26:14, the Torah declares: וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי, וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוֺת הָאֵלֶּה , 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 portion of the blessing and the portion of the curse begin with the same key word, אִם“im” if,אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ , if you follow My decrees, וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי , but if you do not listen to Me. Dr. Yisrael (Shay) 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 G-d’s special gift to the Jewish people. Our Torah does not speak of predestination or predetermination, it speaks of choice. Even the Hebrew word for faith, אֱמוּנָה –emunah, begins with the same two letters as the word im, implying choice.

Rabbis and Jewish theologians speak of “belief” in G-d, אֲנִי מַאֲמִין“Ani ma’amin,” I believe. They do not generally speak of knowledge of G-d. In fact, Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his Sefer Ha’Ikarim (14th – 15th century Spain) wrote (Article 2, section 30): אִלוּ יְדַעְתִּיו הֲיִיתִיו , If I knew G-d, I would be G-d!

The mortal, a human being of flesh and blood, cannot possibly comprehend the immortal, the finite cannot fathom 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 absolutely 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 actually 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, believers and scholars have been trying to prove G-d’s existence. Saint Anselm (1033-1109), Thomas Aquinas (13th-century Dominican friar and theologian), Maimonides-–all presented their arguments and “proofs” of G-d’s existence. Despite the highly persuasive arguments from many different disciplines, there are only powerful indications, but no conclusive proofs for G-d’s existence.

In fact, Judaism looks upon doubt as a healthy and constructive value. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 31a, records three cases of gentiles who come to the sages Shammai and Hillel to convert. The most famous case is the non-Jew who first comes to Shammai stating that he wishes to convert while standing on one foot. Shammai throws him out, but Hillel teaches him: דַעֲלָךְ סְנֵי, לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבִיד , What is hated unto you, do not do unto others. “That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Zil g’mor, go study.”

There is a second case in which a prospective proselyte wishes to convert only on the condition that he can become 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, as expected, rejects him. Hillel, however, welcomes him and begins to teach him the Hebrew alphabet: “Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet…” When he comes back the next day, Hillel tests him on what he had previously learned. He repeats the alphabet perfectly. But, Hillel replies, “No, it’s dalet, gimmel, 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.”

From this we conclude, that Shammai regarded “doubt” as equivalent to “denial.” Hillel, however, felt that doubt was not at all a manifestation of denial, but rather an indication of ignorance.

There’s an old Yiddish expression: “Fuhn ah kasha shtarbt men nisht,” You don’t die from a question! Doubt, in Judaism, is looked upon favorably, since it frequently leads to growth.

The Kotzker Rebbe, one of the great Chassidic masters, 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 trick question, so he responded wisely 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 the person on the bottom of the ladder may, theoretically, be higher than the person on top. If one would ask me, “Who is a good Jew?” I would not respond Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular, Zionist, Cultural. I would rather 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 special gift, the gift of choice. אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ , “If” you choose to follow in My decrees and statutes, then you will be blessed. Freedom of choice is the most valuable of the many gifts that G-d has given us. Let us choose wisely. Let us choose G-d, choose growth, and in this manner ensure Jewish posterity and a bright Jewish future.

May you be blessed.