Who determines our behavior?


This week’s Torah portion is doubly important. It is the sedra of the week but is also read on Yom Kippur. Its message is not mysterious: the Israelites sinned and God “was incensed at that land and brought upon it all the curses recorded in this book. The Lord uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them them into another land…” (Deuteronomy 29.26f.). However, hope was extended, as well: “Then the Lord will open up your heart and soul, in order that you may live. And the Lord will grant you abiding prosperity in all your undertakings…for the Lord will delight in your well-being…” (Deuteronomy 30.6, 9).

For our ancestors our fate was clearly delineated: obey God and prosper, disobey and be punished. While the author(s) of Deuteronomy feature this orientation, it is clear in the story of Adam and Eve, the generation of Noah and throughout the entire Hebrew Bible.

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In more contemporary times many have rebeled against this approach. Sociologists and psychologists and other social and physical scientists hold that we are not totally autonomous. Societal pressures, parental mishagas or our genes are seen as basically determinent of our behavior, or in this context, our misbehavior. To a great extent, we live in a no-fault environment: it’s not our fault that we misbehave. The God of the Hebrew Bible did not see things in the same light.

While there is considerable validity to these approaches, Deuteronomy is not entirely incorrect: society does hold us responsible for much of what we do. Each of us has an informed conscience. It is the result of our parents’ nurturing us, of our religious studies. I am convinced that we all know what we should be doing most of the time but frequently we do not actualize this realization. With the new year we can rededicate ourselves to try harder and succeed better.

Let us also turn once again to our sedra: “See, I (God) have set before you this day life and good and death and evil … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that you may live…” (Deuteronomy 30.19).

May the Days of Awe motivate each of us to move closer to the potential with which we, created in the image of God, were born.

Rabbi Joseph R. Rosenbloom is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.