Free Will, Autonomy, Repentance – Re’eh 5781

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (Kremer), who lived from 1720 to 1797, was among the most revered Jewish scholars of the early modern period. He was reputed to have learned by heart the entire Bible by the age of four. But as much as he was acclaimed for his prodigious knowledge of sacred texts, he was lionized for the depth of his insights regarding them.


One such insight is his commentary on Deuteronomy 11:26 that frames human choices for good or evil in the present tense rather than in the past: “Note that I give before you the choice today between blessing and curse.” Were the text articulated in the past tense, an argument could be made that once a poor choice is made, there is no turning back. Instead, the present tense allows for the possibility that every day as long as a person is alive the opportunity exists to choose the good path in life.


Further, should a person ask what remedy might he or she have if they were wicked – how could trespasses be corrected, the text would have that person look no further than the word “today,” implying that the penitent is no different than a baby newly born. Each day is a chance to start over. And should a person wonder how he or she would be able to overcome any evil impulse, look no further than the word “I.” So long as a person keeps God before him or her, there is every reason to believe that the evil impulse can be defeated. And finally, should a person believe that there really isn’t any choice in life, that people are directed by their needs and wants, look no further than the word “before you.” It is you that has the power to choose from among the choices placed before you.


In other words, the Vilna Gaon sees this verse as a summary of the entire theological position of Judaism on free will, autonomy, and repentance. Each and every Jew has the power to choose good, reject evil and make a fresh start in the aftermath of bad choices. It is an important message particularly before the onset of the month of Elul.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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