“Civilization arises from a grasp of the distinction between good and evil.” - Michael Novak
In this week’s parsha Moses gathers all the people of Israel to initiate them into the covenant. In contrast to the previous descriptions of the covenant, here Moses simply states:
That thou shouldest enter into the covenant of the Lord thy God–and into His oath–which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day; that He will establish thee this day unto Himself for a people, and that He will be unto thee a God, … (Deuteronomy 29:9-12).
Strangely, though a covenant is to expresses a mutual agreement wherein two parties agree to perform certain commitments, here seemingly only God performs: “He will establish thee,” “He will be unto thee.” What, then, are the responsibilities of the people?
The text that follows does not discuss any commitments incumbent upon the people but simply the negative consequences resulting from of a failure to perform: “And it shall come to pass, when he hears the words of this execration, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, though I will go in the firmness of my heart’… then the wrath of God and His jealousy will smoke against that man, …” (Deuteronomy 29:18-19). God’s wrath ultimately leads to the exile of the nation and the destruction of the land, to the point that the nations of the world ask: “For what reason has the Lord done this unto the land? What is the meaning of this glowing great wrath?” The response: “Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord… For they went and served other gods …” (29:21-25).
Now, on the one hand, God’s wrath is incurred by the individual going after “the firmness of his heart”, but on the other hand, His wrath glows “for they went and served other gods.” Does the firmness of one’s heart always lead to the serving of other gods? The parsha ends on a similar note: “if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them” (30:17). It seems that when one’s heart turns, it always ends up in the service of other gods.
Interestingly, this last quote comes within the context of Moses’ statement: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances …” (15-16). The framing of the commandment of God between “life and death”, “good and evil”, reminds us of the first command to man: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
This command, explains the Zohar (Genesis 27b), was a command against idol worship. When Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were not mystically endowed with the knowledge of good and evil, but rather they assumed to know what was good and what evil (Abarbanel 3). As such, in the very act of choosing to eat from the tree, man expressed his decision to be his own moral arbiter – a function that was, until then, entirely divine. God reacts in consonance: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).
The moment one determines for himself what is good and what is evil, he has usurped the authority of God and has made himself, in effect, a “god”. This is why Moses equated “going after the firmness of one’s heart” with “serving other gods”, for they are really one and the same sin: forsaking God as one’s moral arbiter. The gravity of “serving other gods” is not due to performing strange “religious” rites but is due to accepting the other god’s morality.
With this in mind we can now explain the almost cryptic terms of the covenant “that He will establish thee this day unto Himself for a people, and that He will be unto thee a God.” Though initially thought to be describing God’s side of the covenant, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that it describes both sides of the covenant: “He will establish thee this day unto Himself for a people” – is God’s part of the covenant; “He will be unto thee a God” – is the people’s side of the covenant! We make the Creator into our God only by accepting Him as moral arbiter. This is our obligation in the covenant.
The consequences of our choice are critical. As mentioned, Moses frames the choice between following God’s word versus going after ones heart in terms of “life and death”. Similarly, Rabbi Akiva explains Adam’s choice of deferring to the will of God versus deciding himself as one of choosing between “the path of life and the path of death” (Ber. R. 21:5). The consequences are immediate. Rabbi Hirsch (Gen 3:24), referring to Cain rising against Abel, writes: “Immediately, as soon as we forsook the realm of Paradise we meet the bloodstained realm of human history.”
This message was made painfully evident to the world by the September 11, 2001 attacks, as American Philosopher Michael Novak writes in “Shaking the world to its foundations: Metaphysical musings about 9/11”:
On that quiet, halcyon September morning of 2001 when first one Boeing 767 heavy with fuel and bound for California, and then another, flew silently into the two towers of the World Trade Center, and within seconds burst into orange balls of flame coming out the other side, something metaphysical in the structure of our world, not just psychological, snapped and came alive. …
At least at first, the gradual trend toward multicultural relativism snapped. “Well,” people were getting accustomed to saying, “we can’t be judgmental. You may look at things one way, but other peoples look at it another way. There’s no such thing as good and evil. There’s only preferences. Yours, his, everybody’s, it’s all the same. It all boils down to tolerance.” Sorry, as the two towers slid down rapidly from floor to floor entombing hundreds of living human beings in the fire and ash, Americans rediscovered an evil that was not just a preference like any other. …
Metaphysically, the category of evil came back into civilized discourse. Indeed, a deeper point was grasped.
Civilization arises from a grasp of the distinction between good and evil.
When civilization arose with the exit of Adam and Eve from the garden, the distinction between good and evil was made by man himself. God then placed a sword “to keep the way to the tree of life”. Rabbi Hirsch understands the sword to symbolize the violence resulting from man’s defining good and evil. Violence, he explains, paradoxically keeps the way back to the tree of life: “Trouble… paves the way for the recognition that it is only by casting one’s eyes above, in universal submission to the Law of the One Highest One, that eternal life can be found here below.”
The tree of life can be regained only by accepting that the distinction between good and evil comes from God. And so Moses, at the founding of the nation, concludes his plea for commitment to the covenant, for acceptance of God as moral arbiter, with the words: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” The call to choose life is truly essential this week before Rosh Hashanah, for Rosh Hashanah is the very day that Adam and Eve chose the tree of knowledge of good and evil and rejected God. This Rosh Hashanah, then, let us choose the tree of life, let us choose God.