Nitzavim 5780 – Choose Life

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Nitzavim is Moses’ third and final discourse.  He pours his heart out to the Israelites one last time.  One senses the urgency of Moses’ message: “Hear me! This is life and death we are talking about. It is not just the natural cycle of being. What’s at stake is what it means to be alive – to live! What it means to be in a relationship with God. What it means to truly be a free people – a holy nation.  He ends with: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life so you and your offspring may live”.

These are as powerful as any words in the Torah.  What is meant by the words ” and you shall choose life?” Is this a commandment? A promise? A statement of fact? The Torah and Judaism have many interpretations.

When the Torah states that God puts life and death before us, our tradition is not telling us to decide whether to live or die but that every choice we make from birth to death matters. It is obvious that if one chooses life, then he or she will live, and if one chooses death, then he or she will die. But our physical life and death was not what God was referring to. He is not talking about the physical sense but rather the spiritual and emotional sense. Simply put, in context of the parashah, Moses is instructing the people to accept and follow the laws of God.

It is impossible to count the number of decisions we make each day. These choices range from how we treat our loved ones to how we spend our money; from whom we bring into our world, to how we choose our food and how we practice our religion. We constantly sort and analyze matters that vary from simple to complicated. We base our serious and careful decisions on knowledge and wisdom we gained through experience, education, or personal advice. But there is an underlying determination that is much more fundamental – the one that establishes a firm foundation that leads to sensible choices in everything we do. And, as important as it is, it is not always based on knowledge or wisdom that we can acquire on our own.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates that scientists tell us that we are determined by our genes, that our fate is scripted in our DNA.  Therefore, some think that choice is an illusion of the conscious mind.  It is the fiction we tell ourselves.  Judaism says no.  Choice is like a muscle:  use it or lose it.  Jewish law is an ongoing training regime in willpower.  To be a Jew means not going with the flow, not doing what others do just because they are doing it.

When the Torah says,” choose life,” it means avoiding a dangerous lifestyle which promotes death rather than life. A second, less dramatic way, of choosing life is by not wasting time. The number of years a person is given is not under our control, but what we do with the moments God has given us, is. If we choose not to waste his precious moments, we have chosen life. To choose life means living life in its fullest meaning.  This is something that has become more challenging with Covid19 restrictions.

Rabbi Eliezer Davidovits has another interpretation.  He says that there are two ways to “choose life”.  The first way is the “I” way. If we want, we can choose to think of ourselves first. We can worry about our needs and desires and our wishes, and only later – much later sometimes – will we consider the needs, desires, and wishes of others. But there is another way to” choose life”.  This is the” you” way. Before we act, before we decide, before we speak, we can choose to think about how our actions, decisions, and words will affect others. We can think about how our behavior will affect future generations, including our own children and grandchildren. A real choice is, in fact, being offered. Do we live in a way that supports life in the broadest sense, or do we live in a way that serves only ourselves, only our narrow interests? Rabbi Davidovits says that the narrow way, this second choice, ultimately leads not to life but to death.

I believe that part of what it means to choose life is to not expect too much from people; to learn to accept people for who they are, to respond to them with understanding and compassion. Forgive them for what they are not and try to accept them for who they are.

Choosing life also means forgiving ourselves, especially for things were not responsible for. But what about the stuff we are responsible for? What about our failings, our weaknesses, our sins of various kinds? At some point, when we’ve done the best we can do, the only life affirming responses we can have is to have compassion on ourselves and to recognize we are humans and accept our weaknesses. Ultimately, choosing life also means learning to love ourselves in spite of our failings. And this is not easy.

Humans require an objective which goes beyond existence. As Victor Frankel, noted psychologist and philosopher, discovered at the concentration camps, the most important drive within humans is not the will for pleasure or even the will for power, but the will for meaning. Those who had higher meaning, who were involved in helping others survive, and those who were calculating in their heads different mathematical or philosophical problems or preserving and copying segments from the prayer book or the Bible from memory stood a better chance of surviving the horrendous living conditions of the concentration camps. Frankel said that it is this search for purpose beyond one’s own physical survival, this quest for self transcendence and reaching out for the infinite, is what comes forth from God’s mouth and what the Torah refers to as “life.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has yet another interpretation of choosing life:

Choosing life means engaging with life, not taking refuge from it. It seeks, not so much happiness as joy: the joy of being with others and together with them making a blessing over life. It means taking the risk of love, commitment, loyalty. It means living for something larger than the pursuit of pleasure or success. It means daring greatly.

Choose life. Nothing sounds easier yet nothing has proven more difficult over time. Instead, people choose substitutes for life. They pursue wealth, possessions, status, power, fame, and to these gods they make a supreme sacrifice, realizing too late that true wealth is not what you own but what you are thankful for; that the highest status is not to care about status, and that influence is more powerful than power.

Moses’ last testament to us at the very end of his days, when his mind might so easily have turned to death, was to choose life.

As we approach the high holidays, we all need to take a realistic inventory of ourselves and our lives. The most important choice we can make is to choose life. In other words, to decide on core beliefs that will shape our character and define our purpose – the standards and values that determine how we live from day to day, what we believe, where will we be at the end of our life, and most importantly, what will happen after that.  What characteristic traits and examples did we demonstrate that will live on in our children and grandchildren as they choose life for themselves?