This week’s Parsha begins with a slightly enigmatic set of Pesukim. In preparing Bnei Yisrael to enter Eretz Yisrael, Moshe warns them, “Re’eh anochi nosein lifneichem hayom bracha u’klalah,” see I am placing before you blessings and curses, “es ha’bracha asher tishmi’u el mitzvos Hashem…V’Ha’klalah im lo tishmi’u el mitzvos Hashem,” - if you follow the Mitzvos, you will be blessed, and if you fail to adhere to the Mitzvos, you will be cursed (11:26-28).
The Sforno (11:26) explains that Moshe is telling Bnei Yisrael that whether they receive blessings or curses is their choice to make. If they follow the Mitzvos, they will be blessed with more success than they need, and if not, they won’t even have enough for what they need.
In outlining the terms under which Hashem will shower them with blessing and bounty and the conditions that will render them vulnerable to curses and misfortune, Moshe seems to present Klal Yisrael with a puzzling and yet obvious decision. What kind of a choice is this, really, when faced with these two diametrically opposed potential outcomes? Wouldn’t it be obvious that Bnei Yisrael would choose blessing over curses?
A similarly strange ultimatum will be presented to Bnei Yisrael in Parshas Nitzavim (30:19). The pasuk there says, “ha’chaim vi’ha’maves nasati lifanecha, habracha v’haklalah, u’bacharta ba’chaim”- behold I place before you life and death, blessings and curses, and you shall choose life. Conveying Hashem’s words, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael, “I am presenting you with two options, life and blessing, or death and curses; I implore you to choose life!” What else would Bnei Yisrael possibly choose? Is it not overwhelmingly apparent that the correct choice, the best choice, is to choose life?
As the Torah does not waste a single word or even letter, it is critical to understand the function of these seemingly rhetorical statements, and to unravel the true meaning behind these perplexing Pesukim.
One of the ideas that comes up frequently in therapy sessions is the notion of what is within one’s control and what is out of our control. Often the behaviors and emotions my patients struggle with derive from a distorted view of the concept of free will and choice. People will claim that emotions justify their behaviors, that the patterns in their relationships, habits they struggle to break, or cycles of dysfunction they are stuck in result from an inability to do things differently and are outside of their control. Through gentle, validating assessment and honest, frank discussion, one can begin to disentangle the threads of the web that are, in fact, out of someone’s control, from those can be traced back to the person’s choices.
Recently, this came up with a young adult patient of mine, we will call her Sally, who was struggling to get along with a particular member of her family. In stressful situations, Sally often ended up storming out of the house, blocking the family member’s calls, or getting into violent fights with this person. Sally was experiencing significant emotional pain because of this fraught relationship, and was seeking ways to improve the situation she was in. In talking about the importance of choosing to be effective, or to use skills to manage her emotions, or to think before she speaks or acts when around her family, Sally became exasperated, and groaned, “you say that as if it’s a choice!”
Though she wanted desperately to be less aggressive, find other ways to manage her anger, and mend this important relationship, Sally also felt a lot of justifiable anger, hurt, and resentment toward this family member for multiple, valid reasons. When that emotional pain was triggered, Sally genuinely felt that her reaction was out of her control. In some ways, from a neurological standpoint, Sally was right: when we are highly emotionally aroused, our ability to think clearly and make wise-minded, effective decisions is compromised. As such, remaining in control and being able to act in the ways that we so desperately want to becomes increasingly more difficult and requires a kind of commitment to change and resolution to practicing acting differently that is strong enough to bypass emotional hijack.
To Sally, putting in the effort necessary to make those choices more realistic would involve a lot of discomfort. She could continue to engage in the behaviors she’d been demonstrating when feeling angry and choose the pain of the ongoing fractured relationship and consequences of her actions, or she could choose to throw herself into the work of sorting through her emotional pain and making increasingly wiser decisions about how to act toward her loved ones, even when she was angry. In my conversations with Sally, as in many of my conversations with my patients (and with myself!), we refer to this idea as choosing our pain. Though it may feel frustrating to accept and a difficult, less than comforting concept to grasp, it is the truest, most honest assessment of our reality.
In his widely read and renown book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes it thusly, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth, and our freedom.” Every situation, person, moment, and interaction is a stimulus with which we are presented, and if we are willing to pause and sit in that space before we respond or react, we realize that we always have the ability to choose how we move forward. In DBT, as we have discussed elsewhere, we often refer to this as the freedom to choose in the absence of alternatives. Even when it feels as though the choice is not an ideal one, barely a choice at all, a choice between two types of discomfort or pain, we can always choose.
Li’havdil, choosing blessing over curses or life over death may seem obvious at first glance, hardly a decision we need to think about for very long. And yet, choosing life and blessing and bounty means choosing, daily, regularly, even as we struggle and falter and lose our inspiration, to adhere to the Mitzvos. It means fighting fatigue and burnout and apathy and at times being uncomfortable or in a state of uncertainty or inner conflict. Choosing something as harmful as curses and death may not seem like a choice any of us would make, and yet, sometimes, becoming lax in our Avodas Hashem is the path of least resistance. And when we are tired or in pain, that path becomes very tempting, indeed.
On the brink of entering Eretz Yisrael, after forty years of living with daily miracles and Hashem’s presence tangible among Bnei Yisrael, Moshe reminds the people that even the most obvious choices sometimes need to be intentionally made. After all, if it were truly so obvious,
Hashem wouldn’t need to ask us, implore us, to choose life. R’ Moshe Feinstein z”l notes that Hakadosh Baruch Hu chose to give the Torah to us, rather than to the angels, because although angels have some Bechira, everything is so clear to them it is as if they do not. We, however, do not have that clarity. For us, these choices are complex, confusing, and difficult to make. Yet Hashem gave the Torah to us, because being alive, being human, and being Ovdei Hashem inherently requires struggling, doubting, and grappling with choices. The Ksav Sofer explains that Hashem does not want us to have total clarity, He wants us to wade through the mud and muck and make those difficult choices, because that is what it means to be alive, and to live a Torah Judaism that is alive, as well.
This week, let us reflect on the power of our freedom to choose. What behavior are we excusing as being outside of our control, when really we are just struggling to make the difficult or uncomfortable choices necessary to change or ask for help? What are we responding to by rote, and blaming on circumstances or other people’s choices? Even while we must validate the pain we may be in, even while we must hold others accountable for their behaviors and ways in which they may have caused harm, even while we can come to Hakadosh Baruch Hu with our pain and anguish and anger and questions, we must also be mindful of the ways we are choosing to respond. Each moment, each action, each word we speak, each decision and relationship and conversation, contains choices. Choosing life, and choosing blessing, means pausing in that space between stimulus and response and asking ourselves, what next move will be the closest to “asher tishmi’u el mitzvos Hashem”?
May Hashem give us all the strength and fortitude to choose wisely, and be showered only with blessing, and with life.