The closing sections of the book of Deuteronomy contain a remarkable series of prophecies that predict blessings and curses and cut right to the core of the destiny of the Israelite nation. To the cognoscenti, some of the blessings are subtle curses, while some of the curses contain hidden blessings. All told, the last 7 chapters give an utterly vivid and frank picture of the Chosen People, pulling no punches on the fate in store for them if they forget their mission.
In the middle of all this is a series of verses promising an ultimate return to the Promised Land if they choose to return to the path God set out for them. These verses conclude with a statement (30:15, 19) that is dramatic both for its simplicity and for its scope: “See, I have placed before you today life and goodness, and death and evil…I call to testify upon you today the heavens and the earth – life and death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse; choose life, in order that you and your descendants live.”
Life and blessing, as the ensuing verses tell us, are to be associated with loving God, walking in God's ways, clinging to God, and keeping God’s laws. Death and curse, on the other hand, are the consequence of swerving from that path and straying after other gods and worshiping them. No major surprises there. So what’s the big deal with these verses?
The surprise is not to be found in what is meant by life and death, but by the command/suggestion found at the end of the second verse. ‘Choose life’. What exactly does this mean? Is it a command ordering them to choose life? Or is it merely a suggestion lacking the force of a command? Or perhaps is it something else entirely, containing some subtle clue as to our purpose in life.
According to the command/suggestion approach one could ask, why must God (through Moses) issue this two-word statement to begin with? Isn’t it obvious which option God would be pushing? Would anybody possibly imagine God exhorting them to choose death and evil? One could answer that, yes, God is merely stating the obvious, because sometimes the obvious must be stated as clearly as possible. After all, much of the Biblical history of the Israelites was one example after another of choosing what is described here as the path of death and evil. So maybe it’s not that different from a coach giving a last minute pep talk to a team that already knows its job is to win the game.
But there is more here. Even that first statement about placing the choice of life and goodness versus death and evil contains something deceptively simple and tremendously profound. This clear-cut statement contains the question and the answer to one of the great religious and philosophical issues of all time – the nature of human will. Is it truly free and unfettered, or are we bound by some hidden fate that our apparent independence only masks? Does God, or whatever supernatural powers lurk in the heavens, know what we are going to choose, thus relegating our choices to nothing more than filling in the pieces of a puzzle that was laid out for us that had but one solution? What really is free will? The Torah, in laying out this choice for us in cut and dried words, leaves no question about the entirely free nature of human will. It provides no clues as to how free will actually functions, given the fixed laws of nature and the physical basis of the human mind, etc., etc., etc. But who cares about all that anyway. The bottom line is that we have free will. What we do with our free will is considerably more important than understanding how it works. Choose life.
This approach, though it is simple and straightforward, does not work for everyone. There are those who need to go deeper into the matter, to know the how and the why. How could it be that we can really make free choices if the brain is nothing more than neurons and chemicals? Can a mishmash of chemicals and neurons actually make a choice? Isn’t the choice really determined by the physical state of whatever it is that makes the brain tick? At best, science only allows for some sort of random factor entering into the physical world at the quantum level. But this hardly solves the problem. What we call choices would be nothing more than pre-determined physical conditions combined with some element of randomness. That is a far cry from genuine free will. So what is the alternative? For starters, it must be recognized that free will cannot be explained in a ‘natural’ manner for the reasons mentioned above. It has to be ‘supernatural’, springing from some spiritual source that is not limited by normal physical restrictions. We might as well go straight to the ultimate spiritual source, known to all as God. God, as the verses we are examining clearly state, is the source of free will. Free will is a gift from God and nothing less. It is, perhaps, God’s greatest gift to us, in that it allows us to decide, to some degree, our own destiny. In a sense, it is the only part of us that is truly ‘ours’. Everything else is subject to the restrictions of the fixed laws of nature or the whims of fate, or God, or whatever one wishes to call it. Your free will is who you really are - everything else is nothing more than a tool or a prop.
How does it work? By some manner that is hidden from us, God allows us this measure of freedom in deciding certain choices that determine specific aspects of the path we take in our lives. It would appear that even God has no control, and perhaps no foreknowledge, of what those choices will be. We, in some limited manner, are allowed to ‘play God’ within that personal arena. The Torah calls this personal arena, and those choices what must make within it, the arena of good and evil. Our responsibility, our mission, our purpose, is to make the right choices.
This is a truly amazing gift that we have been granted. It is something that we take for granted as much as we take our intellect, our bodies, or our emotions, for granted. We simply accept the fact that it is there and think nothing more of it. But in reality, there is nothing more mind-boggling, nothing more miraculous, than this very ability that we carry around with us like some application to a smartphone. Free will is the ultimate gift, a gift of divine proportion from the Creator of all. In truth, it is an actual ‘piece’ of God lodged within the mind that forms the essential core of who we are. More than anything else, you are your free will.
The Torah describes the opposing sides of these choices in rather dramatic terms. It is not merely the old moral decision of good and evil. It is the choice between life and death, between blessing and curse. The good-evil choice is really nothing less than this. Our moral decisions are our lives, and how blessed and cursed our lives will be is entirely within our own hands. The stakes are high. Perhaps we can now understand the somewhat puzzling exhortation in verse 19, ‘Choose life’. In addition to being a recommendation of what should be rather obvious, there may be a subtle hint to something about the true essence of these choices. Life, blessing, and goodness are truly ours to choose, but they must be chosen. We must not fall prey to the perpetual temptation to not choose, to just ride through life on a spiritual version of autopilot, allowing the vicissitudes of fate to steer us along the path of least resistance. This path, easy and tempting as it is, is in truth the path of death. It is a cursed path, though its true evil nature and the curse it carries may not be so readily noticeable. This is really our choice – to choose or not to choose. If you choose, you are choosing life; if not, you are allowing forces other than you core self to decide your fate. That these forces may reside inside you somewhere is immaterial. They are not your essence. They may be pent up emotions or long-forgotten memories, sudden whims or some need for social approval. But they are not the essential ‘you’. The true ‘you’ only emerges at the surprisingly rare times that the will is fully engaged. This is the choice, to use the will or not. It is the choice between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death.
Free will is the spiritual equivalent of a muscle. It must be exercised and strengthened on a regular basis or else it will atrophy. It must be stretched to its limits at times, and allowed a little R&R at others. It needs frequent testing and fine-tuning to make sure that it remains in tip-top shape for those moments when it will be called upon to perform at peak condition. The alternative is a slow death. Life must be chosen, to be grasped with two hands, and clutched with all one’s strength. A blessed life of goodness is not our birthright; it is not a free gift from God. What we have been given freely is the opportunity to attain that blessed life and to truly live. It is remarkable how little we actually make use of this divinely ordained power. Most of our lives are spent in using a cheap knock-off of true free will, in which we imagine ourselves to be making choices but are really under the guidance of a modern version of fate. Isn’t it time we learned to use our greatest strength, the one power that enables us to choose the limited amount of freedom that we have? Perhaps at the close of its final book, the Torah is reminding us that this is the greatest gift that life can give us – the ability to choose. It is ours for the taking.
There is something inspiring about the notion that God left this blessing in our own hands rather than handing it to us on a silver platter. We must struggle to make our lives good. Maybe it is better in this way, earning blessing rather than receiving it as a freebie. How much would it really be worth to us if we got it for free? What you don’t earn, what you don’t struggle for, you don’t value. God has given us the ultimate gift in allowing us this miracle of free will. God has given us the ability to truly be like God, to create ourselves, to choose life.
Food for Thought
It is strange that something as fundamental as free will is completely inexplicable by scientific knowledge. It is one of the great mysteries of life. Is it real, like the Bible claims, or is it an illusion, like modern science would have us believe?
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