Minutes of Torah
This week we find ourselves in parashat Nitzavim (always read around the High Holy Days, as this teaching is appropriate for this year’s Days of Awe) near the end of Moses’ farewell address in the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses puts a capstone on all that he has re-taught the Israelites in the previous 30 chapters in the Book,
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving Adonai your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.”
If we follow the word of God, everything will be a paradise. And our daily liturgy confirms that theme: whether in the second paragraph of the Shema; or the multitude of prayers that encapsulate the reference to God as the wisest, the greatest and most powerful force in the universe.
Yet we are mystified by a god that would allow debilitating illnesses, pain, suffering, destruction and death – to name just a few.
To be sure, we have confidence that our community will survive. Our parasha describes what will be the cycle of our People’s history: a repeated sequence of iniquity and sin, followed by judgment and punishment in the form of exile, followed by returning to God in repentance, followed by redemption and return to the land.
And within this community cycle, we have the freedom, as Torah teaches above, to “choose life”. Traditionally this “choice of life” was understood as the choice between the continuation of life, as opposed to a premature time of death.
But for the 21st century liberal Jew, i.e., virtually all of you, the notion that we will suffer an early end to our life as a result of our sins just doesn’t sit well in our understanding of the consequences of our actions. And in any event, we see how the converse of this proposition equally does not bear fruit.
So, I’d like to share with you a more modern interpretation for the “choose life” option that was presented by Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine in the 20th century prior to Israel’s independence, when he said:
“the life promised by the Torah is not the opposite of physical death, but the alternative to a mere vegetative existence that does not deserve to be called life.”
According to Rav Kook, “choosing life” is about more than doing what is necessary to ensure our physical survival. Rather for him, living by the words of Torah enlivens us internally, bringing about the affirmation of life and goodness into the world. “Choosing life” is to live for a purpose that transcends our individual selves; it is about being awake and engaged in life.
“Choosing life” in this way is not always the easy choice. But it is the choice that we can make and have faith that it will ultimately lead towards more blessing, and even “more life”.