“Every mind must make its choice between truth and repose. It cannot have both.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
This week’s Torah portion begins with a famous directive, in which God places before us two opposite outcomes, blessing and curse.
See that I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know. (Deuteronomy 11:26-27)
The medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra take note the singular term “see” and suggests that God was speaking to each of us, today, in the moment, and was admonishing us to make wise, healthy choices.
Maimonides (Yad, Laws of Repentance 5:1-3) writes similarly. He adds that the alternatives which God presented sit at the very core of how we understand free choice.
Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his… There is no one who compels him… towards either of these two paths. Rather, he, on his own initiative and decision, tends to the path he chooses. This principle is a fundamental concept … of the Torah … as it states … “See that I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse],” implying that the choice is in your hands.
According to Maimonides, God gives each of us the opportunity to make choices that will determine our standing and our future. We can choose to act positively, and live the noblest form of existence. Alternatively, we can elect to make unwise decisions or act wickedly.
Assuming that you are like most of us, you struggle routinely to make correct choices. Too often, our temptations get the better of us. How can we achieve a breakthrough and position ourselves for steady growth and positive choice making?
Sometimes, we simply need to establish a routine of positive action. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains that the reason why the Hebrew nation proclaimed that “we will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7) when they were preparing to receive God’s Torah was because they understood the importance of regular positive actions as the basis for their lives as divine servants. It would not suffice for us to think positively or even meditate about spiritual matters. Only continued action, fulfillment of commandments and making good choices, would ensure their longstanding commitment.
There is something else that we should keep in mind when making decisions. The Daat Zekainim (Deuteronomy 11:27) cites a parable of an old man who positions himself by a fork in the road. When travelers approach the spilt, they inquire from the elder as to which path they should take. “The first one,” he says, is “smooth and then thorny. The second one is the opposite.” When the Torah admonishes us about the ability to choose between blessing and curse, it is telling us that while it may seem prudent at first to choose the path of least resistance, more often than not it is the foolhardy choice because we will then achieve less, leaving us feeling unfulfilled.
As we approach the Hebrew month of Elul, let us remember how important our choices and decisions are and make sure to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), so that we can reap the abundant blessing that God has promised us, in this world and the next.