In his concluding exhortations, Moshe reminds Israel of the centrality of free will:
See, I have set before you this day (HA’YOM) life (HA’CHAYIM) and good (HA’TOV) and death (HA’MAVET) and evil (HARA). That I command you this day (HA’YOM) to love Hashem, your G-d, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His laws. And you will live and increase (V’CHAYITA V’RAVITA), and Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in the Land to which you come to possess it. And if your heart will turn away, and you will not listen, and you will be led astray, and you will prostrate yourself to other gods and worship them; I tell you this day(HA’YOM) that you will surely perish: you will not prolong days on the soil which you will cross the Jordan to come there to possess it. The heavens and the earth do I call witness (HA’IDOTI) against you this day (HA’YOM): life and death have I set before you, the blessing and the curse. And you shall choose life, so that you shall live, both you and your seed; to love Hashem, your G-d, to listen to His voice and to cling to Him. For He is your life and the length of your days, to dwell upon the soil that Hashem swore to your Forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov, to give them (Devarim 30:15-20).
The repetition of this day (HA’YOM) gives this passage immediacy and urgency, to take responsibility for choosing between life (HA’CHAYIM) and good (HA’TOV) and death (HA’MAVET) and evil (HARA).
Rashi understands this phrase according to cause and effect or, to be precise, effect and cause: You will earn life (HA’CHAYIM) if you do good (HA’TOV): namely, if you love Hashem, your G-d, etc., then you will live and increase. On the other hand, you will be punished with death (HA’MAVET) if you do evil (HARA): namely, if your heart will turn away, etc., then you will surely perish. When Moshe states life and death have I set before you, the blessing and the curse, he means that man is capable of determining his own fate.
Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1879) agrees that this is cause and effect, while reversing Rashi’s translation: If you choose life (HA’CHAYIM), the fulfillment of the Torah, you will receive good (HA’TOV), reward from Hashem. If however you choose death (HA’MAVET) the nullification of the Torah, you will reap evil (HARA), the punishment.
According to Ibn Ezra, the cause-and-effect is implied. He reads all four terms as results: for obeying Hashem one receives long life (HA’CHAYIM) and good (HA’TOV) — quality of life, with wealth, health and honor; this is indicated in: And you will live and increase (V’CHAYITA V’RAVITA), etc. However, one who disobeys will have an early death (HA’MAVET) after a life of evil (HARA), as explained later: you will surely perish…
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) also explains all this as consequences, but includes the World-to-Come: for obeying Hashem one earns both eternal life (HA’CHAYIM) as well as a good (HA’TOV)and pleasant earthly life. Alternatively, for disobedience one receives death (HA’MAVET), that is, punishment in the afterlife, following an earthly life of suffering (evil, HARA). Knowing this, one will be motivated to follow Hashem not only in this world, but for the ultimate good in the life to come.
Meshech Chochmah (R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926) also sees an allusion to the World-to-Come here, while reversing Sforno’s reading: evil (HARA) refers to the absolute bad that comes after death (HA’MAVET). Similarly, good (HA’TOV) refers to absolute good. In verse 19, Moshe mentions only life and death, but not “good and evil.” He calls heaven and earth – which are physical, and therefore transient – to witness: All the host of the heavens will dissolve and the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll (Yesha’ya 34:4). In this connection, the Midrash (Yalkut Yesha’ya 429) says: * As “Torah Insights” contains words and ideas of Torah, please treat with respect and dispose of properly. “In the future, Hashem will sit in the Garden of Eden and expound the Torah. All the righteous will sit before Him, and all the heavenly entourage will stand on their feet, and the sun and constellations will be at the right of the Holy One Blessed be He, and the moon and the planets at His left. The Holy One Blessed be He will sit and expound a new Torah destined to be given by the Messiah.”
Why does Moshe call The heavens and the earth as witnesses?
Rashi offers two answers:
They will serve as role models: Just as nature, from the heights of heaven to the lowest part of the earth, obeys Hashem’s design without fail or alteration, so should you obey Him.
Bechor Shor (R. Yosef Bechor Shor, born c. 1140), on the other hand, sees them as the instruments of Hashem’s Providence: If you obey,
Then I shall grant your rains in their times [from the heavens], and the earth shall produce its fruits (Vayikra 26:4). And if you disobey, He will close up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the earth will not bring forth its produce (Devarim 11:17).
Gur Aryeh (commentary on Rashi by Maharal of Prague, R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c. 1525-1609) adds pointedly: there is no way to attain life but by pursuing the good. There are no alternative routes or shortcuts.
Adam and Chavvah, created on Rosh Hashanah, were endowed with free will, the essence of humanity, the image of G-d. The entire system of mitzvot is predicated on the freedom of man’s will, and now Moshe brings this concept full-circle. As Rambam (Laws of Teshuva, Ch. 5) and Ramban explain, man’s choices are his own; neither earthly nor heavenly forces compel him.
At this time of the year, it is crucial that we remember the choices we have made and those we are still free to make.