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Parashat Behalotcha

By Dan Cohen

Parshat Baalotcha 2024 - G’ds Free Will

(June 26, 2024)Gd has free will. Gd puts it to use to bring light and goodness into the world. Even right here, right now, as you read this. 

Let that sink in a moment. Maybe it's obvious to you, but it stopped me when I read Rav Hirsch saying it. No matter what I thought I wanted to write about, this idea stayed with me and pushed its way to the front of the line to ensure it's what I spoke with you about.

At the start of Chapter 9, Verses 1 and 2, we read about Pesach and its sacrifice, saying, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt, in the first month, saying: The children of Israel shall make the Passover sacrifice in its appointed time.”

Rashi reads in its “appointed time” by saying, “Even [if it were to fall] on Sabbath; “in its appointed time” [also implies,] even [if the majority of the people were] in a state of ritual uncleanness.” 

Rav Hirsch reminds us that we are one year after the Exodus chronologically. Thus, it's an ideal time to teach these laws. He also points out that Pesach fell on Shabbat that year. The Torah and its commentators examine the relationships between the prohibitions of Shabbat and our requirements to bring the Pesach offering. 

Rav Hirsch brings various explanations from the Talmud on the debate about bringing the sacrifice at its “appointed time” and what that means. He shows how Pesachim 77 builds on this Rashi, that no matter what, even if the appointed time is on Shabbat and even if the majority of the community is “unclean,” we must offer sacrifices. Hirsch adds that our sages say this applies to all community sacrifices, including our three main holidays—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Consider the profound significance of these holidays. They are not mere dates on a calendar, but times specifically designated by Gd for us to connect with Him. Each of these moments is infused with a unique act of Gd’s providence, imbuing them with a special significance for our spiritual growth. Long after he created the world, He set these dates aside for us.

Here’s what got me. Hirsch says:

“Each one of these holidays, then, reveals Gd as a free, personal, and omnipotent Gd. Who not only created the world but also rules it after the creation, shaping it by free rule.  … all holidays…are connected to the revelatory acts of the period of Israel’s founding.  They attest to the fundamental fact of Gd’s creation AND GUIDANCE (my emphasis) of the world and attest to it based on the historical experience of our own development.”

I took this understanding from his quote. It is a mitzvah to honor Hashem and even prioritize him with a sacrifice on the holidays. These three special days mark not only his creation of the world but also honor his real-time actions in our existence. Hirsch reminds us that ours is a living Gd who cares, acts, intervenes, and believes in us. 

In this Torah example, Gd takes regular time and makes it holy. This is the special act of a free Gd affirming himself as active in this world. 

Hirsch adds that when Gd affirms himself as a free and personal Gd, this is the indispensable precondition for man's free personality. His actions validate us and demand that we utilize our free will.

When Gd calls to us on these holidays, His freedom serves as the basis of our freedom. In doing so, He guarantees us our moral freedom, which we exercise when we make an offering to Him. Gd’s free act, to designate these days, summons us to a free human act, whose natural and appropriate expression is the Korban, the sacrifice. 

Here, Rav Hirsch underscores the communal aspect of our religious practices. Only the community, not individuals, can offer these sacrifices year after year at the designated time. Our individual times may pass, but the community endures. 

Our collective spirituality and Gdliness, not our individual roles, define us as a divine community. An individual who dedicates himself to the community lives and endures through the community's actions long after his time. The individual’s work endures forever.

A concept I’ve learned in my growth journey is to stand in choice. A song lyric from the band Rush says, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

We can make decisions in one of two ways. We can just let stuff happen, and in doing so, we’ve decided not to act. Hirsch might say we’ve surrendered our Gdliness in these moments.

Another option is intentionally choosing a path forward with full awareness of the natural and imagined consequences and long-term repercussions. Gd is asking us to actively engage with the divine tools that He has given us, such as our wisdom, intellect, and emotions. 

Gd is also modeling the behavior for us. He could have stopped with the creation of the world. Instead, He demonstrated that He can and will continue to be an active participant in our lives, in this case, by designating these holidays. 

So here’s our choice. At any moment, we can be friendly, engage in service to another, take particular time to acknowledge Hashem, or mark a moment with a specific action. These acts, especially if they inspire others, will endure long after we depart from this stage.  

Gd gave us free will. We know this because He exercised His in creating the world and guiding us through our calendar and His holidays. He is not only asking us but urging us to use our free will to its highest purpose and has given us the tools, and even the times, to do so.


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