What Does It Mean to “Choose Life”? Parasha Nitzavim


Next week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, with its  evocative prayers and stirring  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 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.

  The notion that  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 sometimes die young, and the wicked sometimes live long lives. This week’s Torah reading     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 good before you, and death and evil.  Choose life ………

What is the difference between what the Talmud is teaching, and what the Torah is teaching?  In the passage of the Talmud, G-d is 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 good, death and evil.  

Yet there remains a problem. What does it mean “to choose life”? Do we really have a choice whether to live or to die?  Wouldn’t we all choose life over death, if we had the choice? The Talmud would seem to be accurately reflecting our experience — who shall live and who shall die in the next year is largely a matter of G-d’s will, or, if you would have it, of fate! The 98 people who died in the Surfside Condominium collapse certainly had no choice in the matter. Had they known there was a chance that the building would collapse, they would have chosen to sleep elsewhere. The over 600,000 Americans who died of Covid in the past 18 months did not die because they failed to “choose life”! They were essentially random victims of a pandemic. The over 2200 people who died in the recent earthquake in Haiti did not die because they failed to “choose life”. They lived in the wrong place at the wrong time! They had no choice.,  — 

So what could it mean when the Torah tells us to “choose life”? 

By mentioning “life and good” and “death and evil” next to each other in the verse, Moses is saying that every life affirming action that we take in our lives can increase the good in the world. At the same time, there are actions we can take in the world that can be a curse and lead to destruction.  Moreover, because we live in an imperfect world, and because we are all flawed, every action we take is a mixture of good and bad, life affirming and life diminishing,  at the same time. Our goal in life is to live consciously, to be aware of the impact, both positive and negative, of our actions on the world and to shape our behavior toward choosing and maximizing the impact of our actions toward the affirmation of life.

For example, we have to eat in order to survive. But eating involves ending the life of something that is living. Plants likely do not  feel pain, but they do experience sensations. They respond to sunlight, gravity, wind, and even tiny insect bites. If we want to eat fewer plants, and therefore kill less life, we should eat the plants directly, because feeding them to animals and then eating the animals kills more plants! 

Animals surely feel pain and anxiety, and therefore the more plants we eat directly the less suffering we inflict on animals. In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were permitted to eat only plant life. Once humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden, G-d permitted humans to eat meat. But the Torah sets limits on the kinds of animals we are allowed to eat. Moreover, according to Jewish Law, the animals we do eat  must be slaughtered by a shochet, a ritual slaughterer. The shochet recites a blessing before slaughtering the animal, which increases his or her awareness of the holiness of the life about to be taken, and the slaughtering is done in a way that minimizes the pain the animal feels. Although we are permitted to eat meat, doing so is not as life affirming as eating plants. And we certainly are forbidden to kill animals for sport! 

Nor is being a vegetarian  without its costs. People have to harvest crops. We should ask ourselves — Are they paid well, or are they exploited? The crops have to arrive at our tables, which use fuel from airplanes and trucks adding to the pollution of the environment. Each of our actions has a ripple effect that amplifies both goodness and evil in the world. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

As we approach the New Year, let us examine our behavior and actions for both the good we do — our life affirming choices — and the inevitable downside of those very choices. We can examine our deeds, repent of our transgressions, and resolve to rebalance our behaviors to make more life affirming choices and  reduce the destruction our actions bring to the world. We can all become conscious of both the positive and the negative impact of our actions on ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors and our world. 

Shabbat Shalom