See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God… and the curse if you shall not hearken….
— Deuteronomy 11:26
The opening of this week’s portion, Re’eh, establishes the exercise of free will, and the blessings and curses of the consequences of free choice, as a preoccupation with which to examine whatever follows.
Deuteronomy 15:12-18 prescribes that a Hebrew slave of either gender must, after six years of servitude, be offered the opportunity to regain freedom. It also prescribes that, should the slave choose to stay in servitude, he or she will be taken to a door and have a hole bored through one ear and into the door with an awl.
The focus of concern is the case of the slave who has lived under a reasonable master who has provided food and clothing and productive employment. Going into freedom entails leaving a situation that is known and safe and bearable. It is implied but not stated that wandering the streets of the ancient Middle East as an ex-slave looking for work and shelter and the next meal is not necessarily an attractive prospect. And in some cases, as the details of the parallel text in Exodus 21:2-6 make clear, it would mean leaving a spouse and children. The text is at pains to present a serious choice.
Our text presents a paradigm of wide applicability and great power, but in order to see this clearly, we have to get away from the issue of slavery, which does not apply to our circumstances. We can do this by means of the great rabbinic interpretative technique known as binyan av. Using this technique, we can say of the text that implicit in it is a historical general paradigm couched in terms of the historical specifics of an ancient slave-owning society. In order to see the text’s applicability to ourselves, we must first impute the general case and then show how this general case manifests itself in historical circumstances similar to our own.
Imputing the general case is fairly straightforward: We only need to break down the narrative into its component stages and then generalize each one in turn.
First, the initial circumstances involve a slave, that is to say someone whose freedom to act is circumscribed. But we all are living in circumstances that constrain our freedom to act: We all have obligations to family and friends and employers or clients, and we all have, in addition, limitations of capacity and inclination and talents and funds. The person in constrained circumstances, which is our text’s starting point, can be understood as completely general. It is anyone living in a tolerable but far from ideal situation.
Next, the person in constrained but tolerable circumstances is offered an opportunity to expand his freedom to act. The opportunity involves radical change. The person weighs the pros and cons of going into what appears to be circumstances of greater freedom against staying in an existing tolerable situation. He then makes a completely rational choice to take or not take the opportunity offered.
Finally, this refusal of the opportunity to live in greater freedom results in a small but permanent mutilation. In the general case, this mutilation could be, and normally would be, a small permanent wound to the soul or psyche.
The most obvious way in which such situations manifest themselves in our own time is the choice of staying in or getting out of a dull but decent marriage (or relationship) or job.
To stay in a secure but stultifying marriage or job is to have its blessings and curses, its realization of some of our potential selves and its mutilation of other potentials. And to leave is to acquire another set of blessings and curses, another set of realizations and mutilations. And even in the 21st century, it is possible to be quite mistaken about current situations, let alone about prospective situations. And there’s still some pain involved in acquiring more realistic knowledge, which still has to be mainly acquired through irreversible experience. We can never fully realize more than a small fraction of the possibilities that present themselves to us or that are potential in us. In the end we can’t avoid, we can’t be liberated from, the necessity of choosing those parts of our potential selves that will be realized. This severing of ourselves from most of our potential is the unavoidable mutilation at the heart of the aspect of the human condition out text portrays.
The blessing inherent in freedom is the ability to guide our own lives, or at least have the illusion of doing this. And the unavoidable curse, apart from the possibility of mistaken and disastrous choices, is that for each choice we make each day there are a multitude of selves, a multitude of potentials, we have chosen not to realize.
As it is said, “See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”
David Curzon is the author of “The View From Jacob’s Ladder” and a contributing editor of the Forward.