In his landmark English commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz explains that when Moses say that “I have set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26), he means that “Both as individuals and a nation they were endowed with free-will, and the choice between the Two Ways rested with themselves.” The great medieval commentator Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra noted that individuals are endowed with the power to choose on the basis of the opening word “re’eh” which appears in the singular rather than in the plural, more appropriate for addressing the multitudes.
The affirmation that every individual has daily choices to make comes with profound philosophical implications. In contrast to those who argue that all human activity is motivated by “selfish genes” over which people have no control, the Torah insists otherwise. In contrast to those who say that childhood experiences inalterably shape behavior, the Torah teaches otherwise. In contrast to those who argue that environmental factors like poverty and its associated degradation and deprivation condemn people to a life of crime, the Torah argues otherwise.
There is probably no imaginable hell worse than living as an inmate in Auschwitz. In his book entitled If This Is Man, Italian chemist Primo Levi explores the question of whether or not people can retain their humanity in desperate situations. Himself a survivor he recalled the desperation of his fellow inmates. Yet despite the threat of imminent death, the inmates defied what he described as “the law of camp,” namely, selfishly keep what is yours, steal what you can, and survive at any cost. Despite the potential harm to themselves, the inmates “broken by tiredness” chose to share the scant food that they scavenged.
To those who would defend their actions with the oft-repeated phrase “I had no choice,” the Torah insists that everyone has a choice. And it is incumbent upon each and every individual to make the proper choice.