The Best Possible Choice — Quick Comment: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9- 30:19

One of the great innovations of Reform Judaism was changing the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning when arguably more people will hear the Torah than any other.

The traditional portion is about the scapegoat from Leviticus, chapter 16. In that portion the priest symbolically transfers the sins of the people onto the head of an innocent goat that carries them away from the people out into the wilderness.

The portion our early Reformers substituted was a brilliant choice, a passage from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 that places responsibility for atonement and self-improvement squarely on our own shoulders. We cannot transfer our transgressions onto a goat.

The rabbis long struggled with the contradiction between the ideas of free will and of a God who knows everything that will happen.

The great medieval Sage Rambam (Moses Maimonides 1135-1204) wrote extensively on this question (Hilkhot Teshuvah, chapter IV). To summarize his view as succinctly as possible:

Everyone has free will to be righteous or wicked. But how can one always do as he or she wishes? Can we ever do anything with God’s permission?

Just as God wishes that fire and air ascend and water and earth descend, so God wishes humans to have freedom of will. Therefore, know that what you do is in your power, and you must give a reckoning

(If this seems confusing, the Rambam concludes):

Know that the human mind cannot apprehend or discover the real essence of the Creator.

 In the end the Rambam could only elaborate on the enigmatic Talmudic statement: ”All is foreseen yet free will is given.” (Pirke Avot 3:19)

For me that conclusion sums up why the Deuteronomy passage (culminating in 30:19) is perfect for Yom Kippur:

“See I have set before you this day life and death the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live.”

Our choices matter, and the Day of Atonement admonishes us to consider them as carefully as if our lives depend on them.

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