The sidra confronts us with the free will choice of good and bad, life and death, destiny or disaster (Deut. 11:26).
The nature and parameters of free will are one of the hardest and most deep-seated of all human problems.
We are endowed with free will, yet at the same time we are governed and manipulated from outside and above.
Both things – free will and determinism – cannot be true, but they are. It’s a paradox, an enigma.
The traditional statement of the problem is that of Rabbi Akiva,
“All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given” (Avot 3:19).
How we answer the paradox is to say that even if facts are imposed upon us, we have the capacity to decide how to handle them.
As Maimonides says in the last section of his Eight Chapters on Ethics, whether we will be male or female, tall or short, thin or fat, is beyond our control, but the way we deal with our situation is up to us. As the Talmud says,
“All is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven” (Ber. 33b).
In the post-Holocaust era, the question is even harder.
God says to man,
“You have two choices, whether to believe in God, and whether to believe in Man. God has His own time table, but in the end He will not let you down.
“What about Man? There is no guarantee that Man will not let you down.
“You have to believe in God, because He made you and governs the universe; you have to believe in Man, because *you* are Man, and you can and must choose to be the best possible and most moral Man you can be”.
WHAT YOU EAT & WHAT YOU ARE.
A major section of the weekly portion deals with food.
There is a German saying, “Der Mensch ist was er isst” – “Man is what he eats”. In one sense that means that you learn what kind of human being a person is by looking at his culinary culture, what and how he eats.
In another sense it means that food affects and moulds your health; if you don’t eat well you probably won’t feel well either.
Judaism understands both these arguments but it adds another by giving the subject an ethical dimension. It lays down a complex system of kashrut laws, and your domestic dietary regime is a large part of how you show your Jewishness.
Because the reasons for the kashrut laws are not explained in detail in the texts, we can each choose where to place our emphasis.
One of the leading writers on the dietary laws, Dayan Dr Isidor Grunfeld, points out that you show your character and mettle by being able to say “Yes” or “No” when you choose your food.
The gift of self-control, the mastery of your passions. makes you a responsible person, and if you control your “Yes” and “No” you show (to yourself as well as the outside world) what sort of human being you are.
Dayan Grunfeld says,
“Self-control and self-conquest must start with the most primitive and most powerful of human instincts – the craving for food” (The Jewish Dietary Laws, 1972).
WHO COMES FIRST.
The whole world has problems. There is poverty at home and poverty abroad. There is homelessness, deprivation, abuse, discrimination, loneliness, unhappiness everywhere.
To alleviate the problems is a battle that has to be fought on every front at once. When you see homeless people huddled in thin garments and sleeping on newspaper in shop doorways and under railway bridges, you know there are similar problems everywhere, and some homeless people are not lucky enough even to find doorways and newspapers. But where do you start?
The Torah says,
“If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart” (Deut. 15:7).
Rashi tells us that the verse establishes the order in which we should endeavour to help: first comes “a needy person”, one whose need is greater; then “one of your brethren”, a closer relative before a more distant one; a person “within your gates”, someone from your own city; “in the land which the Lord your God gives you”, someone from your own country.
Similar problems face every Jew when it comes to the tug of war between the needs of the Jewish people and the needs of the world.
In the days when people first talked about zero population growth, I used to argue that overpopulation in China and India was no reason for Jews to decide to have small families. Obviously I accepted that certain parts of the world had problems, but I insisted that Jews had to have an order of priorities and as a statistically endangered species our own needs had to come first.
I still believe so. I still believe that Jews are not looking after their own survival enough. The charedim, yes – but the rest of us?