The sedra of Re’eh, the longest sedra in Devarim, starts with a grammatical puzzle – Re’eh, anochi noten lifnachem hayom. “See, I set before you today”. There doesn’t appear to be a problem in the English, but in the Hebrew we notice that re’eh is in the singular while lifnechem is in the plural. Chazal explains this as Hashem speaking first to each individual, then to klal Yisrael, all the Jewish people. The Ramban, Moses Nachmanides, says that verses 26-28, “Behold I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” are merely about Moshe speaking generally to the people, warning them that those who keep the mitzvoth are choosing life, while those who turn their back on the diktats of Hashem would be cursed. This exhortation to choose between right and wrong raises the question of free will. Judaism has no belief in autonomy or individuality. Hashem has told us how we have to live our lives, what is right and what is wrong. The only choice we have is whether to obey or not.
The idea in the Hebrew of first using the singular and then the plural shows us that we have collective responsibility towards our fellow human beings. We are one people with the ultimate goal of serving Hashem. As one people we pray in the plural for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, “selach lanu” not selach li.
The concept of free will is very difficult if you believe that Hashem is All-Knowing. He knows in advance what decisions we will make so how can making these decisions be free will? In Judaism free will means that we have the right to choose our own path, whether to follow the mitzvoth or not. We do know which path Hashem has designated for us, therefore it is our own choice.
In the sedra of Nitzavim, Devarim 30, Moshe once again puts before the B’nei Yisrael the blessing and the curse. In verse 19 he tells the people: “I call upon 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, you and your descendants.” This makes the choice perfectly clear – follow the mitzvoth and receive the blessing of life, or ignore them and be cursed.