Parashat Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah and thoughts for the asseret y’mei teshuvah

The Mishnah tells us that “Everything is foreseen, nonetheless free will is given”. How can we come to terms with a God who knows what tragedies will happen, yet who does nothing to prevent it, and who will, in the words of this sidra, “Hide the divine countenance from us”, allowing us to be ready prey for our enemies?

And If God anticipates and even knows what the future might bring, of what significance is our own free will?

The problem arises again and again in bible, beginning in the book of Genesis with the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, and mirrored here at the end of Deuteronomy with God’s disclosure to Moses about what will happen after his death.

The contradiction is addressed in traditional Judaism with the mishnah I began with, the idea that God’s omniscience includes a complete awareness of human nature and of how people will behave, yet God also allows us to make our own choices from the full spectrum of possible actions. And the mishnah takes the idea further by telling us that “Everything is in the hands of God, except the fear of God” – in other words, from the rabbis’ perspective, God has chosen to limit Godself in one important aspect so as to allow human beings to do that which makes us so special to God and makes us in God’s image – we are able to exercise choice.

The idea of limiting God – even of God choosing to limit Godself – is one which comes close to blasphemy, and yet that is the boundary with which we have to work, for it is the area in which we exist.

The mystical tradition tells us that when God decided to create the world, God first had to draw back, to create some space in which God was not, so that God could create a distinct entity that was not-God. Having created the world in this space-that-was-not-God, God then breathed something of Godself in the form of divine light, or holy sparks. These holy sparks are said to be the manifestation of God with which we work and struggle, the immanence of God in the place where God has chosen to limit Godself.

Our tradition tells us that God has chosen, for the sake of the existence of humanity, to limit God’s active presence in our world, and has given us the choice to either accept or to ignore God’s presence; to either attempt to meet God’s requirements or to turn our backs on God. God’s wish is clearly that we search for relationship, that we obey the mitzvot and in so doing partner God in completing the work of the creation of the world – but in no way will God push us into having to accept that position, nor will God intervene in history to change what we do, or to alter the consequences that will arise from how we choose to behave.

If we turn our back on God, if we choose to be alienated from God, then the consequence will be that God is hidden from us. God is limited by our human freedom to engage – or not to engage. As the writer of Deuteronomy wrote: ‘Lo bashamayim hi” – it is not in heaven that you need to say ‘who will go there for us…” And as the psalmist echoed “The heavens are the domain of God, but the earth has been given to human kind”. We have this world in which to exercise our choice, and our choice must be informed by having Torah, by being able, as Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs once said, to think God’s thoughts after Him.

In this world of extremist teachings and of secular explanations it becomes easy to either blame God for terrible and tragic events, or else to find other places to lay blame – a government’s foreign policy maybe, the anonymised disaffection or alienation of a mass of people, capitalism. What seems to get lost is the actual and personal decisions made by individual people, the choices to act or not to act, the thoughtfulness and stage by stage process of decision making. Individual autonomy and responsibility gets submerged in the rhetoric of blame and anger, glib reasoning and political analysis tries to explain away real and personal choices.

“Everything is foreseen and yet free will is given. Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven…” We have a God who has deliberately limited Godself in our world to allow us to express unhindered our essential humanity and our freedom to choose. Our tradition shows us again and again that God took a chance when God created human beings to be free – every narrative in bible demonstrates that God, like us, must therefore bear the consequence of our freely chosen actions. God’s knowledge of what could be and what will be remains – what Nachmanides calls ‘knowledge in potential’ – yet God’s action can only be done through human channels. The responsibility for how the world will be is ours alone, for the choices are ours alone – millions of individual and personal choices continually being made.

During these ten days of Teshuvah, of our returning to our root of Being, we have the opportunity to read and to reflect, to study, to think and to pray. We have the opportunity to put right what we can put right, to apologise for what we can no longer amend, to act choicefully to make our world a better place. We have the choice and we have the responsibility. We can begin to seek God’s presence, to confront God’s hidden face. As God said to Joshua at the beginning of his journey – hazak v’ematz… be strong and resolute, v’anochi ehyeh imach – for I will be with you.

Bereishit

One of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity derives from the story of Adam and Eve and their leaving Eden. According to Christianity, this is a story of a fall from grace, and is linked to the doctrine of original sin – that human beings are born in a state of impurity which derives from the pride and disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the garden. Judaism is emphatically opposed to this idea – indeed our morning prayers include the words “My God, the soul which You gave me is pure, You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me. You preserve it within me and You will take it from me…” a prayer that can be found in the Talmud (Berachot 60b).

The story of the leaving of Eden is not a tragic event, something that should never have happened; and we should not spend our lives yearning to return there – after all, why would God create a garden in which there are two trees that we should not eat from, if not to challenge us and to provide a catalyst?

Adam and Eve in the garden are innocents, they are like new-born children, and if kept in that state they will never be able to grow and learn and develop their own ideas and identities. Making mistakes is part of growing up and becoming who we are. The story of leaving the Garden of Eden is a story of maturation, of acquiring independence, of leaving home in order to become one’s own full self. Making mistakes is how we learn.

Jewish teaching tells us that we are born with a pure soul, and that we are responsible for its state. We will make mistakes, we will – in common parlance – sin, and we have a mechanism in order to remedy those mistakes, Teshuvah. Often translated loosely as ’Repentance’, in fact Teshuvah means to turn back, to return to God and become our best selves.  Judaism further teaches that we have two competing drives, the Yetzer haTov and the Yetzer haRa – the inclination to do good by acting selflessly, and the inclination to act selfishly. We have free will and can make our own decisions about which inclination we might follow at any given time. And sometimes the more selfish choices are important ones too, as understood by the Midrash (rabbinic exegesis on the bible)

“Nachman said in R Samuel’s name “Behold it was very good” refers to the good desire (Yetzer haTov), “and behold it was very good” also refers to the evil desire (Yetzer haRa). Can then the evil desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the evil desire however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

So we need to have a selfish inclination, we just have to keep it in check, develop and practise a sense of morality. As we mature, it is this sense of responsibility to others, this moral code that influences the choices we make.  And this is the sense of responsibility that Adam and Eve lacked in the garden; it is arguably something they could only acquire with experience.

We are born with a pure soul. And we are born with two competing urges – to act for our own good and to act for the good of others. Sometimes these are compatible, sometimes they are not; sometimes that is obvious to us, sometimes it becomes obvious only in retrospect.

We become responsible for our own actions and our own choices, but we have the possibility always to return our souls to the pure state in which they were given to us, by acts of Teshuvah, of implementing the moral code. The story of the leaving of Eden is the story of both Eve and Adam choosing to follow the Yetzer ha Ra, to act according to a more selfish need. Had they not done so, one assumes that humanity would never have grown and developed, never exercised free will and made moral choices.

An important message of this story is NOT that people are evil by nature, that we are flawed from birth and spend our lives attempting to attain a state of goodness, but that we should use our more selfish as well as our more selfless impulses for creating a better world.  Both are necessary, it is how we balance these impulses, how we moderate our behaviours with our moral and ethical understandings that matters. We are never cast away from God  with no route back – the door is always open, our souls are given from God, preserved by God and will return to God. But the state they are in during the time we have them, that is a continuing and constant choice for us to make.