This week’s Torah Portion opens with one of the lines of the Torah that I find most beautiful and thought-provoking: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day.” (Deut. 11:26-28) There is a haunting quality to these words that on one hand, seem to empower us for good, and yet it seems that we are constantly toeing the line of failure should we forget to follow a commandment. And, how do we do this as Reform Jews, choosing to structure our Jewish lives around the commandments that individually have weight and meaning for us? It can be a tough decision to make and path to tread.
I highly value the right that we have as Reform Jews to make informed and valued choices for ourselves. I think this is one of the most important things we can take from this verse. The Torah is directly saying that we have been given and had “set before us” free choice to live our lives at our own will, but ultimately we must also accept the consequences of these choices. We can choose to follow the commandments which make sense to us which often times are the mishpatim, the commandments in the Torah which explicitly state their reasoning. We see many references in Deuteronomy to the mishpatim as well as their counterpart, the chukim. While “mishpatim and chukim” often are translated without much differentiation in our commentaries as just “laws and rules,” there is a greater definition to the term chukim as laws in the Torah which do not have a full explanation. As one of my friends recently reminded me, they are like those things that as we were growing up and whined to our parents “Why do I have to do this?”–the answer we received was a simple . . . “because.” This is certainly not a response that was always the one we wanted to hear, but one we could rarely argue with and come out the winner. And, often times, by going through the motions, we find great personal meaning in the action of doing the mitzvah itself and a unique motive for the mitzvah is thus found.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has pointed out in his book The Bedside Torah (a favorite of mine!) that the very point of having the commandments commanded to us is that we otherwise might miss the boat. We need their insistence and direction to point us in the right direction. We can choose so many ways of living for good, and even when we make a mistake—we can then choose to learn and move forward, or to remain unmotivated in a fixed position. We always have the choice to empower ourselves to overcome obstacles we face, to help others. Israeli poet Leah Goldberg spoke well of this condition to be taught and to continue this process of renewal, redefinition, and living to the fullest:
“Teach me, oh God, a blessing, a prayer, the secret of wilting leaves, the brilliance of ripe fruit.
This freedom: to see, to feel, to breathe, to know, to hope, to fail.
Teach my lips a blessing and a song of praise, as each morning and night You renew Your days,
Lest my days be as the one before, Lest routine set my ways.”