I want to run a brief multiple choice survey with you all. Just note in your mind what you choose of the options presented. Ready? Do you choose white, rye, whole wheat, or challah? Next, of the best quality organic fair trade coffee, do you choose a single shot, a double shot, steamed milk, frothed milk, milk substitute, or black? Do you choose iPhone, Blackberry, or Android? Do you choose – and remember this is just in your head, don’t comment to your neighbours – do you choose Olivia Chow, John Tory, or Doug Ford?
Okay, I have one more: Do you choose life or death? I’m not asking for a long-term commitment. You don’t have to make your selection for the entire year, or next month, or even for tomorrow. But just for today, just for this moment, do you choose life or death? Maybe that sounds like an absurd question. Maybe the choice is obvious to you. Maybe you don’t really think about it as a choice.
Parshat Nitzavim, the Torah portion we read this past Shabbat, and that we read every year on the Shabbat right before or right after Rosh Hashana, challenges us to recognize that life is a choice. It states, “I call heaven and earth to witness this day – I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. U’vacharta ba’chayyim – choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
It is certainly a truth of being alive that you don’t get to choose how long you live. You don’t get to choose the country or family or economic class or the body you are born into. In large measure, you don’t get to choose what struggles or delights inhabit your days but, as far as Judaism is concerned, choosing life requires a conscious, deliberate decision every single day, and it is a choice we bring into heightened focus during the High Holydays. As long as there is electrical activity firing in our brains, and as long as the bellows of our lungs contract and expand, we are asked to notice that life and death are options in every moment, that life and death are at stake in every moment, and we are asked to choose.
So what exactly is meant by chayyim – life? And what does it mean to choose it ?
At the most basic level, chayyim is the opposite of physical death. In Bereshit, in Chapter 2 of the Book of Genesis, the first human begins as a clump of lifeless earth. In a beautifully intimate image, God blows into the human’s nostrils the breath of life – nishmat chayyim. That Divine life-breath is the difference between an animated being and a lump of mud, the difference between being able to caress someone’s cheek, eat spaghetti, make love, or swim in a clear, cold lake, or not. Not being. Anyone who meditates knows that merely being alive is not the same as the awareness of being alive, the awareness of breath in the body, the distinct sensations of each inhalation and exhalation as the direct and present experience of life. Can you take a breath with that awareness right now, sensing life palpably in your body? According to the Torah, that is one of God’s names – the very Essence of Being. That life-breath is the life-breath of the Universe. Choosing life at this level is the choice to take the next breath, to feel its tender, wondrous subtlety; to assent to being alive and allowing the next breath to breathe you.
Robin Williams’ recent suicide painfully reminded us that sometimes a person no longer feels able to choose life, at the most literal and basic level. And perhaps you yourself have experienced moments that felt so dark and so alone that you no longer wanted to keep walking this life. Obviously there is no simple formula to pull someone back from the edge of despair, let alone address depression or mental illness. What I want us to explore about embracing Chayyim, is how chayyim comes to mean more than survival, so that it is worth living for, worth choosing. And if it means more than slogging through another day and another year, then we’ll need to be wise and deliberate about how we develop the muscles, every day, to be able to confront its darkest moments and truths, and to be able to marvel, be tickled, curious, undeterred and resilient, grateful and open, as we meet the whole of life.
The verse in Deuteronomy states, “U’va’charta va’chayyim le’ma’an tich’yeh, ata ve’zar’echa.” – “Choose life so that you might live, you and your offspring (Deuteronomy 30:20). It sounds like a dog chasing its tail – choose life so that you might live, so you choose life so you can live. But the Torah’s language is never accidental. It clearly means more than just living for the sake of living. Here is an imperative: Choose life so that you will be alive – truly alive, filled with vitality. Choose it like you mean it. And live a life that is the very opposite of death, that swims strongly and forcefully against the current pulling you toward a deadened, static, safe, and habitual existence. That current is persistent and is weighted with the gravity of everything that has ever hurt you, scared you, or taught you to give up.
How do you swim against that constant undertow? Parshat Nitzavim offers three practices for becoming adept at choosing Chayyim. It says “Choose life so that you may live, you and your offspring”. How? “By loving Adonai your God, by listening to God’s voice and by attaching yourself to God, because Adonai is your life and the length of your days.” (Deuteronomy 30:20). I know there is a lot of God-talk in there. Stay with me. Those of you who are atheists, agnostics, humanists; and those of you with Post Traumatic God Disorder, I promise I will translate these words into our contemporary idiom. What is clear in the verse, even from an initial reading, is that choosing life requires loving, listening, and dvekut – deep connection.
Let’s start with the endeavor of listening – listening to God’s voice. In classical rabbinic interpretation, there is no distinction between listening to God’s voice and observing the mitzvot, the commandments. According to this theology, the voice of Divine Will rumbled from Mount Sinai in one moment in history to be lasting for all time. If you want to hear God’s voice, it is found in the written words and the oral teaching of Torah, in the laws and sacred practices of Jewish life. These words are to be interpreted by each generation, but God’s voice broke through once and only once.
The 20th century rebbe of the Slonimer Hasidim, Rabbi Shalom Barzovsky, however, has a very different take on what it means to listen to the Divine voice. For him, the mitzvot are certainly essential. We need an external and shared set of laws and practices to cultivate inner qualities, internalizes the highest values, and act on them. But listening to God’s voice, says Rabbi Barzovsky, is something qualitatively different.
He teaches, “We are invited to listen always for the voice of God speaking directly to us. There is a story told about Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov who once was asked by a wagon-driver to pick up something that had fallen from the wagon. When Reb Moshe Leib responded that he wasn’t able, the wagon driver replied, “You are able, you just don’t want to.” In that moment, Reb Moshe Leib heard the word of God directed to him: “You are able, you just don’t want to.”
So there is Reb Moshe Leib, feeling himself to be a important rabbi, busy with the matters that concern him. Helping a wagon-driver with a menial task doesn’t strike him as his responsibility. When the wagon driver’s words cut through his self-absorption and arrogance, he wakes up. He could have simply felt embarrassed for being self-centered, picked up the object, and gone on with his day. But calling that moment “the voice of God” is a way of naming it as buzzing with significance and values that are larger than just that moment. Has that ever happened to you – when the present moment cracks open and suddenly reveals sublime meaning beneath its surface? Reb Moshe Leib was able to hear it as a voice not merely addressing the moment, but that the moment was alive, ringing through his entire being, showing him who he currently is, and calling him to grow into who he ought to become.
Rabbi Barzovsky continues, explaining, “Whatever transpires during the course of our lives, whatever we see or hear, everything is the voice of God speaking to us … This is one of the first conditions that must be present if we are to fully inhabit our Jewish lives, particularly in our inner experience. We must always be listening to hear God’s voice speaking to us.”
Another way to say this is that everything you encounter is an opportunity to choose life. Everything – a flood of joy that takes your breath away – life! A shattering that knocks you to your knees – life! The moments that gather you into the family of all things – life! And the moments that leave you feeling bereft or betrayed – life! Even mundane moments like waiting to get your piece of apple and honey, or bumping into someone who just slightly annoys you, or passing an accident on the highway – they are all life, they are all your teachers speaking to you, and how you listen to them, how you open yourself to hear what they can teach you, is the difference between aliveness or deadness.
Yes, it is hard to be a good student of life, to keep listening. What are the voices and experiences you resist listening to? What are the lessons you resist learning? What habits keep you distracted, or blaming other people for the ills of the world? This is the time of year to not only ask these questions, but to decide what you can do to remove obstructions to live listening.
The second practice – the endeavor of loving. Earlier in the same section of Torah, the Israelites are told, “YHVH your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love YHVH your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:6).” What an image! If you want to choose life, if you want to love wholly and fully, you will need a circumcised heart. You will need to cut away the protective thickening around your heart, to remove the layers of scar tissue that have built up over time, built up from your disappointments, your grief, and your humiliations. It is so human to want to protect ourselves from ever being hurt again, to be careful and guarded. But doing so is the surest way to suffocate the loving we are all so exquisitely capable of. Doing so cuts us off from life. Emma Goldman, a beloved Jewish secular anarchist describes love as “the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the definer of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny”.
Loving that tries to control or possess is not alive. Loving that is conditional on the outcome you want is not alive. This means that you will not be able to choose life if you are not actively healing the ways that your heart is broken. You will need to remove all that has hardened there, so that your loving can be flexible and vulnerable, buoyant and strong. Where is your loving defended? What parts of yourself do you believe are ugly and unlovable so that you never show your whole self, and never love with your whole self? Where do you project hurts from the past onto the person standing right in front of you? Who do you place outside of the scope of your loving heart?
For many of us, our habitual inclination leans us toward darkness – desperation, drama, powerlessness, mistrust. It takes a decision and practice to work against our fearful and protective habits. In the language of neuroscience, our fears have worn deep grooves in our neural pathways so that they become automatic reactions and don’t feel like choices. We are going to have to change our minds, to keep choosing against our patterns, in order to change our brains and embrace a big and conscious life.
To say this is what it means to love God doesn’t name God as an object of our loving. God isn’t another thing or person to love alongside your love of Chopin or your best friend. Loving God is a way of describing the magnitude and the courageous fierceness of the way of loving. In this sense, loving is not just an emotion. It is a commitment to repair and aliveness.
The third practice for choosing life is dvekut, the endeavor of deep connection. In modern Hebrew, the word devek means glue. The biblical phrase le’davka bo calls on us to glue ourselves to the Source of Life, to hold on tight with a connection that is deep and lasting. In Jewish mysticism, dvekut becomes both the path and the goal of mystical union with the Divine, profound soul-attachment.
What does this mean for a practice of choosing life? The 18th century Ukrainian Hasidic Rebbe known as the Ma’or Eynayim (on Parshat Yitro Deut. 4:4), first explains something important about the nature of Life before explaining dvekut.
He teaches that chayyim has the quality of ratzo va’shov – it runs away from us, ratzo; and it returns,shov – from the same root as teshuva, return. Aliveness escapes us and then it comes home. We shrink and contract and we expand again. Life kicks us to the curb, and it raises us up again. When things are going well in our lives, it is easy to feel that life itself is good. Life has meaning and purpose, love abounds, we feel attractive and interesting, and we can see the hard parts in an overall sea of goodness and positivity. But then someone we love has a heart attack, or we find out a trusted coworker has been stealing from us, or the relationship we thought was on solid ground has suddenly ended. The ground opens under our feet and we tumble into a dizzying free-fall. As much as we want our lives to change when they are painful and stay the same when they are good, they won’t. Life is inherently dynamic and destabilizing. Anything that is static is not alive. Theratzo va’shov of life is a dialectic that is necessary for growth, repentance and devotion.
Dvekut, teaches the Ma’or Eynayim, is the practice of attaching yourself to what is lasting, eternal, and solid, despite all of life’s destabilizing motion.
What do you hold on to in the storm? What are the core values and beliefs that will keep you afloat when all that you trusted comes apart? What is the unsinkable hope that you will tether your life to so you can face darkness and not let it swallow you? In the Maor Eynayim’s terms,dvekut means developing deep knowledge that God is right there in the darkness with you as much as in the light. Even when the pain is so great that you are living from one moment to the next, breathing in and breathing out, that sustaining aliveness in you, and in all that breathes and aches and grows, is the Holy One.
Another way to say it is that dvekut is the resilient practice of attaching yourself to the persistence of life, even when someone you love dies. It means cleaving to the enduring capacity of human beings to love and be loved, even when one particular love ends. Even when there is violence and cruelty, it means that you tie yourself to the living examples of human compassion and goodness, forgiveness and change. You tie yourself to these and choose a life that is hopeful. When do you give up hope? When do become rigid in the belief that you can’t change, or that others are incapable of change?
In our recent community conversation about the violence in Israel and Gaza, one comment in particular stayed with me from the closing circle. Someone had voiced deep pessimism that anything would change in the hatred and violence in the Middle East, certainly a legitimate feeling.
When Emil Sher spoke, and I have his permission to paraphrase him, he said, “This conversation actually gives me a great deal of hope. If you had asked a Black slave or sharecropper if they ever thought there would be a Black president of the United States, they would have thought the idea was absurd. Nothing was further from the reality they lived in. But here we are. There is a Black president in the White House. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. I look at my daughters and their lives are already totally different from what my mother lived through. I think we have to hope and I believe there will be a day, and it might not be in my lifetime, when people will say, ‘Can you believe there was a time when Israelis and Palestinians were at war?’ ” Emil, thank you for these words.
This is not wishful thinking. Dvekut as a practice in choosing life is rigorously hopeful, and then it chooses to work toward that hope. It is rooted in the deepest values we can attach ourselves to, and the capacity of human beings to transcend the limitations of the present to reach toward a better life.
U’vacharta ba’chayyim – life is the life we build together. In this sense, there is no such thing as a private or solitary life. Choosing life means choosing human family and the dignity of all life. The ethical implications of these commitments are vast.
Dear ones, violence and greed and a culture of death are ravaging our world. Choose life so that you and your offspring will live. The world desperately needs us to choose life, and keep making that choice because it affects everyone. Our planet depends on it. A Middle East that doesn’t devour its inhabitants but takes firm steps toward equity, mutual recognition, safety, and peace depends on it. We need everyone in the world to live free from violence, fear, and hatred. We all need everyone in the world to have enough to eat and clean water and hope for their future. We need to choose life and mobilize for life, not resign ourselves to the belief that cruelty is just the way of the world.
We don’t actually know what might transform in our homes and communities and in military zones if we commit to ‘choosing life’ as our core project. I just know that the opposite is disastrous. Become a devotee of this kind of loving. Become a master of this scope of listening. Become an Olympian of this way of tethering your life to the most lasting and vital truths and values. Or at least make the choice today to be a student of choosing Life. Rabbi Heschel taught, “There is something holy at stake in every moment.” Our life together depends on it.