When I was in residency one of my supervisors asked me what I thought the biggest distinction between Jewish ethics and secular ethics was. I responded that secular ethics emphasize rights while Jewish ethics emphasize responsibilities. Canada has a Bill of righs. Judaism has a Torah of obligations. For many years I believed it was that simple.
However, upon further consideration I don't think it is. I mean, I haven't changed my mind about the emphasis secular society around us places on rights. Everything seems to be about that. The right to eat what we want without consequence, the right to drink heavily and then be treated in hospital when complications ensure, the right to not be assaulted when entering a person's home with the intent to rob him, and the list goes on. In fact I would suggest that most of what is wrong with secular society today is a result of this unbalanced emphasis on rights to the near-absolute exclusion of responsibility.
But on the Jewish side it doesn't seem to be that simple. Yes the responsibility angle of Judaism gets a lot of press what with the high profile the chumrah-of-the-week crowd gets in the news these days. What's more, when one interacts with Torah Judiasm the concept of responsibility seems to crop up in everything. What we eat, who we touch, what we say in prayer, what we look at, we are told we have responsibilities in all those areas. If one reads more intense books like Nefesh HaChayim and absorbs the implications that the concept of mystical connection to the higher spheres through our actions it almost seems like we have no rights at all, just a constant sense of duty to ensure Creation doesn't get messed up by our actions.
But is it that simple? In this week's parsha there is a hint that we do have some rights. Back in Re'eh Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, started one of his sermons by pointing out that he had placed good and evil, life and death before us and this week in VaYelech he concludes by returning to that theme, first repeating the choice and then adding a request to choose life by performing the good, ie the mitzvos.
But why is the language one of choice? "And thou shalt choose life!" Not "And thou art commanded to choose life!" The final choice is autonomous and informed. We are told of the reward for doing what God wants, the penalty for disobedience and told to decide for ourselves what it'll be.
Now one could say that this is a rigged choice. A child who is told "Eat your broccoli and you'll get ice cream, throw it on the floor and you'll get sent to your room" will often eat the broccoli not out of a sense of appreciation for its nutritional value but instead out of a desire for the ice cream. However, anyone who has raised children knows this is not always the case. Some kids will throw the broccoli on the floor and defiantly refuse to submit to the punishment. Others will scream about the unfairness of it all. The child's lack of acceptance of consequences, however, does not change the parent's authority and the idea of reward and punishment. The resistance due to the resistance of the child to the simplicity of the yes or no choice.
Ar we as adults any different? Are we as a Jewish nation any different? We remind God of His promise to protect us, to help us establish a Jewish state in our Land and all the good things mentioned in the Torah but when it comes to the obligations side of things we get a little fuzzy. We want a diety that will give us health, prosperity and happiness without having the keep any of the mitzvos. The same God we want to prevent a child from being hit by a car is the same God we tell to butt out when we decide to drive that car on Shabbos.
As we approach Rosh HaShanah we must therefore learn the balance between our rights and responsibilities. We have a right to make our own choice in terms of how to live our lives. God will not force the issue. There might be subtle suggestions from on high from time to time (for people who are tuned in to such things) but there is no voice from Heaven telling us what to do when we don't want to. But we also have a right to demand His compassion when we make our best efforts to serve Him.
On the other side though we have a responsibility to make that best effort. As Chazal say, God wants the heart and only we and He know if our attempts are our honest best. We can stand before Him knowing that we cannot fool Him through a sudden display of piety and remorse. We have a responsibility to examine our deeds and repent them but having done so honestly we have a right to demand forgiveness.
May each of us merit an accurate cheshbon hanefesh that allows us to responsibly demand our right to life and mechilah on Rosh HaShanah.