By Rabbi Y. Lindsey bat Joseph, Executive Director,
Sol Mark Centre for Jewish Excellence
is the shortest
in the Torah. Covering just one chapter in Deuteronomy, in the annual reading cycle it is often paired with the preceding
from which many Reform synagogues read on Yom Kippur morning.
opens with Moses preparing the Israelites for his impending death. In verse 14 the flow of the text is interrupted by a prophecy about Israel’s future (Deut. 31:14-21). The prophecy does not end on a positive note. Our downfall, it seems, is a
with no hope of redemption or forgiveness being proffered. This raises the question do we have free will? If so, what good is it, if God already knows what we’re going to do? Moreover, if we don’t have free will then what is the point of trying to make the changes that this season of
demands of us?
The actual text of the prophecy will take the form of a
, a song or poem, in the following sidrah,
tells us that we will breech the covenant by worshipping the alien (Canaanite) gods within our midst and that God will be so angered, the Divine countenance will be kept hidden from us, allowing many evils to befall us as punishment (v.16-18). So certain is God of our pending transgressions that Moses is ordered to write it down, “
… for I know what plans they are devising even now …
” (v.21). So convinced is Moses by these words and his own experience with the Israelites that at the end of the sidrah he affirms, “
… when I am dead, you will act wickedly and … misfortune will befall you …
Our ancestors saw God as intimately involved with their day-to-day lives and a force in human history — specifically Jewish history — so that all that befalls our people is part of some Divine grand design. We tend to be less certain in our ideas about God and God’s role in our lives. The
has shaken our confidence in the notion of God as a mover and shaper of history. Moreover, many of us see the God of the Big Bang, Quantum Physics and String Theory as a far less personal God than the God presented to us in the Torah or the
. Indeed, many of us struggle to put the themes of this season and its traditional liturgies into a perspective that is still identifiably Jewish and yet somehow comports with our contemporary, more scientifically oriented sensibilities.
From a scholarly perspective we know that the prophecy of
is a retrojection from the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile (circa 6th century BCE). The Torah’s dire predictions of Israel’s fate were the reality of Deuteronomy’s final redactors. Israel had already breeched the covenant. We had suffered invasion, the destruction of the Temple and the first exile. But it is presented here as a prophecy of the future, so what can we learn from it?
To begin to answer our questions, let’s consider the interaction between God and Pharaoh in the story of the Exodus. In Exodus, the Torah tells us no less than ten times that God will harden or stiffen Pharaoh’s heart.(1) This seems to completely strip the Egyptian ruler of his free will, something our earliest sages struggled with. How can Pharaoh be held accountable for his sins if it is God who makes him resistant to repentance? The rabbis went to great pains to explain how Pharaoh deserved this seeming injustice.
The choice between good and evil is a fundamental assumption of the Bible. Abel is told he has the choice to sin or not (Genesis 4:7). The preceding
tells us pointedly that we have the choice between goodness and evil (Deuteronomy 30:15), yet both the story of the Pharaoh and the prophecy of
seem to belie that choice. Most rabbinic explanations point to Pharaoh’s murder of the Israelite infants as the source of this judgment. Rather than a specific act of closing Pharaoh’s mind on God’s part, God has created us in such a way that our patterns of behaviour, when perpetuated over long periods of time, become entrenched. In essence, by becoming accustomed to acting out of harshness, rather than kindness, with injustice rather than justice, Pharaoh’s heart is already hardened. Admittedly, this explanation is somewhat forced, but the texts of the Torah aren’t concerned with the notion of free will. Nevertheless, we know from our experience with human psychology that behaviours do indeed form patterns, which can be challenging and sometimes absolutely impossible to overcome.
is the Sabbath of Return. Traditionally this is interpreted as a return to God, a return to our people, and/or a return to our highest selves. In the midst of this ten-day period of
we are forced to confront the truth of our current ‘selves’. Our current self may indeed be a chronic smoker or over-eater, impatient, callous or intolerant, too harshly self-critical, or insufficiently self-aware. If we allow these behaviours to become hardened patterns, then, like Pharaoh, our minds become closed to new ways of being. Even in a deterministic universe, whether or not you believe in a personal God, we cannot foresee our future. From our perspective the future is undetermined, simply because we don’t know what will be. We cannot cease to act or to make choices, because we need to act, to do, to choose in order to live. The process of
affords us the opportunity to think about our choices. As we take stock of ourselves we see the behaviours and mind-sets that are at odds with the best that is in us. If we do not allow our hearts to become hardened, if we open our minds to living in accordance with the ethics our faith then, hopefully, unlike our ancestors in Vayeilech we can prevent our present from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for an unhappy future.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah! גמר חתימה טובה!
(1) Note here that the ancients saw the heart as the seat of the intellect, so Pharaoh’s hardened heart is best understood as what we now refer to as a closed mind.