09/11/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20: Moral Agency and Ambiguity

How obvious is the work of doing good?

How often is "the right thing to do" completely clear?

It is hard not to feel, after the two political conventions, that our society believes in total moral obviousness -- that we are divided cleanly and evenly into two comprehensive schools of thought not only about specific policies but even about the core moral foundations that drive and impel those policies. We seem to implicitly foster a leadership that fears projecting any ambivalence -- neither about particular solutions to complex problems, nor about the ideological underpinnings that lead to those programmatic solutions.

This happens in spite of the fact that we humans are highly unstable and ambivalent creatures, that at least the plurality of voters in most democratic societies are functionally independent -- weighing the merits of candidates across a spectrum of sometimes unrelated issues -- rather than dogmatically obeying an ideological platform, and that when it actually comes to moral decision-making we are often so wracked with indecision that practical ethics columns appear in the New York Times.

Nitzavim -- the short but powerful Torah portion that always precedes Rosh Hashanah -- speaks to the question of the relationship between moral clarity and moral responsibility. The portion constitutes the tail end of Moses' final speech to the Israelites before his death, and in its pleading tone parallels the existential urgency we are intended to hear and feel throughout the High Holy Day season.

WATCH Rosh Hoshanah: A Sweet New Year:

At the heart of the portion is one of the most curious passages in the entire Torah, a mysterious phrase about mystery itself:

"The hidden things -- those are for the Lord our God; but as for the revealed things, those are for us and our children, to enact all the words of this Torah" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The medieval commentators substantially de-emphasize the poetic, intellectual quality of the verse, choosing instead to interpret it as a message about enacting justice in courts of law: leave certain (hidden and unprosecutable) matters for God to adjudicate, and focus on dealing with the cases that have an evidentiary foundation, ones that you can address. This message limits the verse to the prosecution of human justice, with a specific teaching about the limits of our knowledge and our responsibility to apply those limits accordingly.

But the message of this verse is complicated by the continuation of Moses' speech and his adamant insistence that all that he is teaching to the Israelites is within reach, accessible and doable -- it is not, as the Torah famously says, "in heaven" but "very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart" (Deuteronomy 30:14). We hear in Moses' words an urgency brought on by his imminent death and his palatable and realistic fear that all he has worked for could soon be forgotten. The classic rabbinic interpretation of this verse is found in the famous Talmudic account of the rabbis' dispute in the study house and the defeat of the recourse to miracles by the rule of the majority (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia, 59b.) The winning argument actually relies on our verse, "Torah is not in heaven." Trying to depend on miraculous interventions circumvents human responsibility: if you have an opportunity to lead, you are meant to seize it -- not to pray for an opportunity.

This is a critical message, this voice of human responsibility. Taken together with the rabbinic dictum that while we are not completely responsible for making change, neither are we free to desist from it (Mishnah Avot 2:16) one reading of Nitzavim is to catalyze a basic sense of human responsibility and the power that is fundamentally available to human actors even in a divinely ordained world.

But there is another reading, less present in the classical commentaries, but one that offers a more cautionary note -- and that may help us unpack the challenge I outlined above. What if we are being told not only that the work of doing good is within reach, but that we are meant to focus on the obvious and accessible issues? What if the message here is that in the process of taking hold of Torah and asserting human responsibility for our role in the covenant and in making the world better, we also know the limits of what we can seize -- and that certain unknowable areas even of moral behavior are better left for the One who has hidden them? Perhaps if something is fundamentally obscure or complex, we are supposed to leave it to God and focus on what is doable.

This is, after all, the plain meaning of the verse: If it is mysterious, leave it to God! If it is revealed, it is part of the work for you to do. The fact that Torah is not in heaven should not only incline us to take ownership of obligation; it is a message that if things appear to be incomprehensible, inaccessible or beyond our reach, they are not part of the fundamentally achievable agenda of moral responsibility. Do what is doable -- do not overreach, for that stuff is part of God's provenance.

Moral behavior in these murky times requires both of these messages implicit in this elusive text: Our society, with its pervasive problems, requires us to see ourselves as perfectly capable moral actors, capable of seeing ethical and behavioral opportunity and seeing ourselves as change-agents capable of making an impact. Moses' desperate plea is that we not insulate ourselves in our piety from feeling the weight of our obligations and the accessibility of the opportunity to make serious impact. In the words of Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, "We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of being overwhelmed," of pretending that the problems are so pervasive as to be out of reach.

But at the same time, moral responsibility does not demand moral clarity, and it had better not be undermined by it. In the midst of the terrible moral and political conflict of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote in his second inaugural address that 'both [parties] read the same Bible ... and prayed to the same God," and ultimately conceded that "The Almighty has His own purposes." The hidden things -- the totally clear sense of absolute right and wrong -- is left for God. But it did not prevent Lincoln from pushing forward in that address, in his presidency, on one side of what he clearly felt was both a political and theological struggle. He separated, in other words, between moral behavior and moral absolutism.

Could Lincoln have spoken about total moral righteousness -- in hindsight, and even then at the time? Sure, and had he done that, he would have fit right in at our political conventions. But the message of Nitzavim, appropriate for this reflective time of year, is that part of being a moral actor and a moral leader is to embed within the sense of urgency that we bring to our holy work an ever-present awareness that we might not know fully whether the good we do encompasses the whole of God's morality. Perhaps if we let ourselves hear both a call to moral responsibility and, in the same voice, the limits of what we actually know, some good may actually come.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.