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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Re'eh                                August 31, 2019 - 30 Av 5779

08/29/2019 02:48:37 PM



 “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”       -     
                            Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), first Prime Minister of India

                            and disciple of Mahatma Ghandi

Healing rocks, homeopathy, astrology, psychic readings, are just a few of the popular culture fads to which I most certainly do not subscribe.  Other than noticing a few psychic parlours advertised along Sheppard Avenue, I hardly ever come across these kinds of things in my day to day life, but in my annual visit to the CNE, they are hard to avoid.  It is equally hard for me to avoid noticeably rolling my eyes when I see someone hand over lots of money for a piece of quartz crystal “guaranteed” to help with weight loss.  But are these things any more bizarre the Jewish belief in a supernatural, all-powerful and all-knowing God?  By what right is my belief, objectively speaking, any more or less strange than somebody else’s?  (Oddly, astrology and psychic readings just so happen to be historically and culturally rooted in Judaism.)


The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE and subsequent mass growth of the caliphate was actually considered a Golden Age for Jews under Muslim rule.  While Jews may still have been second-class citizens, they were, on the whole, tolerated and even respected in mainstream society, at least more than in the Christian world.  Muslim rulers treasured knowledge, the sciences, philosophy and mathematics, and would go to great lengths and great cost to build vast libraries.  It was also common practice for the Muslim rulers to sponsor great public debates on a wide variety of topics, and when theology was discussed, there would always be a Jewish delegation present to defend the Jewish belief system.


Historic records record one such debate in which the topic of discussion was reconciliation of mankind’s free will with the nature of an all-powerful God.  It bothered people that, on the one hand, both Islam and Judaism agree that the fundamental nature of God is that God is all-powerful and controls all things, and yet, both religions also believe that mankind is given free will to make both good and bad decisions according to his conscience.  After much discussion, the Muslim delegation, led by Abu Nassr Muhammed ibn Muhammed al-Farabi concluded that these two theological points are irreconcilable and a moratorium was declared on the topic.  Unfortunately, history does not recall what was said by the Jewish delegation, but let’s just imagine that they spoke about the beginning of this week’s parsha…


“Re’eh – “See” is the title of our parsha this week.  Moses continues his speech to the assembled Israelite nation on the banks of the Jordan river, “Re’eh – See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26).  Moses makes it very simple for the Israelites – do what God says, follow the commandments, and you will be blessed, or ignore me, fall into sin, and you will be cursed.  Israelites gets to choose for themselves or whether they will be good or evil because that is their right.  The name of the tree that Adam and Eve ate from in the Garden of Eden was not The Tree of Knowledge, rather, it was The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The nature of free will is not about deciding which toothbrush you want to buy, rather, it is about how each of us decides for ourselves whether we are good or evil with a reasonable knowledge of which is which, a knowledge which was originally reserved only for God.  Kabbalah teaches that when God created the universe, He had to first retract a part of Himself from a place in order to create it, before filling that place with God once again.  So too, perhaps, human free will, i.e. the knowledge of good and evil, is God once again, retracting a part of Himself in order to give a piece of Godliness to humanity.  But then, how does God fill Himself back into that void?  This is where free will and fate coalesce – while we may choose between good and evil, what is ultimately destined for us is in the hands of God.


Admittedly, this is not a perfect resolution to question, and I can only imagine that our ancestors produced a far more compelling argument at the interfaith debate.  But while we may not know what the Jewish delegation said, we do know that while Islam put an end to their discussions, Jews continued to debate this issue in their own houses of learning.  While some may believe that unanswered questions are dangerous, Jews love them.  The word “Islam” means “submission”, to give oneself over without question.  By contrast, the entire Torah seems to be about Israelites doing everything BUT submitting, and that was always about our choice – our free will.  Our legitimacy is inherent in the fact that we acknowledge that we do not have all of the answers, but that we struggle and challenge each other in the pursuit of knowledge to find them.  More importantly, we believe that not finding an answer does not invalidate the pursuit of it.  It’s true, sometimes Jewish belief does border on the bizarre, but even if it takes a thousand years, we don’t mind challenging and investigating them. What right does Judaism have to claim legitimacy over any other strange belief?  Just ask the psychics at the CNE if they are ready to handle a thousand years of challenge and investigation.  We’re in no rush.


Shabbat Shalom,


Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780