Nitzavim — Who’s Doing the Choosing?

Next week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, with its stirring and evocative prayers and melodies.  In our Amidah prayer we will add the verses “zachrenu le hayyim, melech hafetz bahayyim, vchatvenu besefer hachayimm”  — Remember us for life, sovereign who desires life, and inscribe us in the book of life.”  The imagery of a “Book of Life” in which G-d inscribes us for the next year comes from the Talmud.  There a Rav Kruspedai says in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, that there are three books opened in Heaven on the New Year – one for the thoroughly righteous, one for the thoroughly wicked, and one for those in between.  The thoroughly righteous are inscribed immediately in the Book of Life, the thoroughly wicked in the Book of Death, and those who are neither thoroughly righteous nor thoroughly wicked have their fate suspended until the Day of Atonement, when G-d decides their fate. Now that simple equation, the righteous live for the next year, and the wicked die in the next year, doesn’t conform to our experience in life, where the righteous sometime die young, and the wicked sometimes live long lives.  Our Torah reading this week points us in a different direction when considering what it means to be inscribed in the Book of Life.  In our Torah reading , G-d tells us, “I place life and death before you, blessing and curse.  Choose life, in order that you and your children may live.” What is the difference between what the Talmud, in the name of R. Yochanan, is teaching, and what the Torah is teaching?  In the passage of the Talmud, it is G-d choosing and inscribing us for life or death.  In the Torah, each individual gets to choose, between the options that G-d sets out before him or her – life and blessings, death and curses.   Then our Torah portion, in the very next verse, goes on to define what “life” is.  “To love the Adonai  you G-d, to pay attention to G-d’s voice and to cling to it.  Ki Hu Hayyecha ve’orech yamecha  — for G-d is your Life and the Length of your Days. To choose life, therefore, means to choose a life of Torah, of studying G-d’s word, of living one’s life according to our understanding of what G-d wants of us.  “Life” here means “spiritual life”, not physical life, certainly not “length of days.”  Without a spiritual life we are like the dead.  Our Torah "is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it." (Proverbs 3:18)  It is by holding on to our Torah that we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life.  By attaching ourselves to our Torah, we gain a sense of purpose in life. To live with a sense of purpose, to feel that one has fulfilled ones life’s destiny, is indeed a blessing.   Without it, life threatens to be aimless and without meaning, a true curse, a spiritual death.  After all, it is not the length of days that we are here on earth that matters, but the use we make of the days we are granted. Shabbat Shalom