Sermon – Shabbat Ki Teitzei

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 28 August 2018

A silly joke tells about a man who was very meticulous in his observance of Jewish law. One day he decided to build himself his dream house. He went to his rabbi and asked if there was anything that Jewish law required to be incorporated into a house design and construction. “Come back in a few days time,” his rabbi said, “and I’ll have had a chance to search through the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch and other legal authorities.” The next week the rabbi gave him a list of legal requirements and the man went to build his house. A year later he went back to the rabbi. “I’ve built my house and taken into account everything on the list you gave me. I started to put up the mezuzah. I hammered in the first nail and then the second one. But as I did so, there was an enormous groaning and crashing and the whole house came tumbling down. Did I do something wrong? What happened?!” The rabbi stroked his beard and looked thoughtful, “That’s really interesting,” he said, “because in his commentary, Rashi asks the same question.”

This week’s Torah reading contains more commands than any other sidra in the Torah. Over 70 of them, 72 commands – covering all aspects of human life – marriage and divorce; treatments of strangers in society; what to do if you find lost property, the care of animals, the protection of species; behaviour in war and so on. Barely an area of life which isn’t touched on in this great and unique collection of social legislation. And buried away among it all is a verse which would, presumably, have been on the list of requirements the rabbi gave to that man building his dream house.

“When you build a new house,” it says, “you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

Straightforward enough – then, as now, houses in the Middle East had flat roofs. You need some sort of low wall around the edge to prevent people falling off. These days, a whole raft of legislation regulates all aspects of building work and construction. What makes that Biblical verse remarkable is that it was written some 2500 years ago, motivated by the desire to save life. For the Torah, ethics are always more important than aesthetics.

But the fact is that planning legislation in western societies has now caught up with, and overtaken the Bible with regard to building safety. Of interest maybe but surely, now, only of academic interest?….

Yet there’s more here than meets the eye. “Build a parapet, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it.” For the grammarians among you, “if anyone falls” is a conditional, something which might, but only might, happen in the future. In the Hebrew, however, “if anyone falls” is in the present tense, so the translation should really read something like “the falling person” as if to say – even though it’s talking about something you need to provide if you should ever happen to build a house, it’s as if the person had already fallen.(Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his translation, appears to be reading it like that.)

Then the Talmud picks up on this curious phrase and explains ‘the falling person’ as meaning: “the unfortunate one had been destined to have this fatal accident long ago, for the Torah calls him ‘the falling one’ – as if it has already happened.” (Shabbat 32a)

In his commentary, Rashi says “the person deserved to fall” but using ‘deserved’ in the sense of “was predestined to fall.” And he adds: “but you, nevertheless, should make sure that their death does not come about through you and your negligence.”(Rashi to Deut. 22:8)

The commentary on the words ‘the falling person’ touches, then, on a much-broader issue than simply how you should be building your house. It has now broadened out into a consideration of free-will and predetermination.

Religions have great difficulty with this idea. To put it in its crudest form, if we say that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, ‘all-knowing’ means knowing everything that has happened, or will happen, from the beginning to the end of time. If God knows what will happen in the future, it will happen that way. That is what ‘predetermined’ means. But that makes human beings into puppets, with God the invisible puppeteer. It leaves no room for free-will, for independent human choice and action.

If that is so, then concepts of reward and punishment become meaningless or inherently unfair. If I’m predestined to be a murderer, then it would hardly be fair to hold me responsible for having murdered: by definition, I had no choice.

If, on the other hand, we say that we have free-will, then what does that say about God being all-knowing? God’s all-knowingness would count for nothing if we could keep ‘second guessing’ God, as it were, so that God wouldn’t, or couldn’t know, in advance, how we would act.

That’s the paradox with which religions have to struggle. It was expressed for Judaism 2000 years ago in the Pirke Avot by Rabbi Akiva as “hakol tsafui v’ha’reshut netunah,” “everything is foreseen and free will is given” or (depending how you translate the ‘vav’ on “v’ha’reshut”) we could translate his words as “everything is foreseen but free will is given.” (Avot 3:15)

Few Jewish thinkers would argue that we have no free will at all. But nor would many argue that we have total free will. We know, anyway, that heredity and environment influence how we behave, do affect the choices we make.

The danger with predetermination is that it removes moral responsibility for our actions. At the very least, we must have moral free will. Judaism has always recognised this. A wonderful midrash has an angel bringing every foetus before God and asking, “will this person be clever or stupid? rich or poor? famous or unknown?” and God can answer all of those questions. But the one question that is beyond even God, suggests the midrash, is “will this person be good or bad?” In other words, God can be ‘all-knowing’ about everything – except a person’s moral behaviour.

For if that were to be predetermined, and if we were always punished for doing wrong and always rewarded for doing good, what virtue would there be in doing good? If we knew we would always be rewarded for doing good and punished for doing wrong, we would have to be masochists, stupid or both, not to do good all the time.

And these questions are pertinent now in particular as we stand just two weeks away from the seasons of Days of Awe. For repentance has to be based on the premise that we do have free will. Without that there would be no purpose to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Free will implies that we can look at our past and decide about some different direction in our life.

That’s why I dislike the word ‘repentance.’ It suggests feeling regret for things we have done is somehow sufficient. And regret is, of course, part of the process. But the Hebrew ‘teshuvah,’ badly translated as ‘repentance’ really means ‘turning’ or ‘returning.’ It’s not a single act, but a process, a gradual turning away from one path and resolving to follow another. As Adin Steinsaltz puts it, teshuvah is “the potential for something else.” (Machzor p736)

My old school chum, Lord Jonathan Sacks, tells how he once went to see the last Lubavitch Rebbe. In the midst of the conversation he said “in the situation in which I find myself….” At which point Sacks says the Rebbe interrupted him, “nobody finds themselves in a situation. We put ourselves in it.” In other words, things don’t just happen to us. We are not simply passive participants nor zombie-like marionettes, simply reacting to what goes on around us.

Nor, of course, re we totally free agents. We live in a context with others whom we must take into account. There are all sorts of constraints on our behaviour. But that’s far from saying all is predetermined.

Writing in the 12thC, Maimonides connected his discussion of free will with that of repentance. We all have free will, he argued. Which path we follow in life is up to us and we shouldn’t believe what many ignorant people believe – that “God desires that a person from their birth should be either righteous or wicked.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5.1-2.)

At the end of the day, we don’t, of course, know what the extent of our free will is. But we have to live by a sort of unprovable operating principle – namely, that we do have free will and can make choices in our lives. To live by any other, equally unprovable operating principle, seems to be worse still. And that was one of the verses in our Torah reading: one generation will not be held accountable for the wrongdoings of another (Deuteronomy 24:16.)

The Days of Awe are not, in essence, about eliminating sin (however we understand that word) from our lives. That will only happen when there has been some inner renewal of ourselves as individuals, some redirection of our lives, casting off the shackles of habit and conditioning – the predetermination we impose on ourselves. As human beings, we are “torn between evil and ethic, between apathy and ideal, between inertia and desire for improvement.” (Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, Summit Books, New York 1988) p211.

Many forces in our lives say that to us that human beings cannot change – we are what we are. This coming season gives out a different message – what we are is only a station on the line not the final terminus. We do have freewill and can use it as an instrument for change in our lives.