Choosing life

Choosing life

Nitzavim — Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

Because it immediately precedes Rosh Hashana, this week’s portion inevitably evokes introspection, especially with its call to “choose life, if you want to live.”

Why wouldn’t we want to live? To be sure, moments of depression (which, for some, are more than just moments) can blind us to appreciating life. But those of us spared depression automatically choose to live, don’t we? Why would the Torah tell us the obvious?

One answer lies in God’s insistence on summoning heaven and earth to witness the warning. What meaning can modern readers find in “heaven and earth?”

Our ancestors saw them as two actual places, a “down here” and an “up there.” Modern cosmology, however, makes it difficult to accept that view. We need a metaphysical, not a physical, interpretation, such as the one suggested by Abravanel’s distinction between “willing” and “choosing.” Willing refers to ultimate goals, the idealized ends of which we can only dream. With all our heart we will something to be the case, even though we can never realistically hope to have it. Choosing refers to real-life options, which necessarily fall short of the perfected ends that make up our will. What we will is heaven. What we choose is earth. When we choose life we must choose among the competing alternatives that earth, not heaven, offers. Choosing life is difficult, then, because life is, by nature, flawed. It is never the sum total of what we really crave.

Just before God calls on heaven and earth as witnesses, God promises that choosing life will give us blessing “in the land you are about to enter.” Here is another biblical term that demands modern interpretation — what can “entering the land” mean for us who live millennia after the conquest of Canaan and have no aspirations to enter any land other than our own.

Like “heaven and earth,” “the land” too was originally a real place. But Hasidic tradition sees “the land” as a metaphor for the internal landscape of our lives in process, as we make the journey from birth to death. Choosing life, then, results in blessing not in some far-off piece of geography but in the land that is life’s journey — a journey made on earth, not in heaven. The Torah “is not in heaven,” the parsha further explains (Deuteronomy 30:12). Heaven is the habitat for angels, not for us. If you want to live, choose life: life on “the land,” life on earth.

Judaism’s passionate affirmation of realistic choices contradicts our society’s usual notion of religion as an ethereal heavenly thing. The “real world,” we think, consists of the messy tasks of law, business, and the everyday. But the most important Jewish work beyond the Bible is the Talmud, which is nothing, if not a running commentary on those selfsame messy tasks. The only life we have — and the one that Rosh Hashana calls us to choose — is messy because it is lived on earth, not in heaven.

We should not begin a new year with unreal expectations. We can attempt to restore relationships gone awry but should not pretend they will be perfect. We can make peace with our failures but should not imagine we are immune to further failure. We can resolve to abandon destructive behavior but even the best intentioned resolutions will not prevent us from at least being tempted to revisit the same old patterns. We can clean up our lives but should not expect them to be immaculate.

Life will always be messy because it is part and parcel of a universe governed by entropy. We are, at best, in the salvage business, regularly cleaning up our lives and restoring temporary sanity to a personal world that is inherently unstable, incomplete, and imperfect. But as messy as it is, life is a blessing. Only fools, the parsha says, imagine they can evade choosing life properly but still be subject to blessing (Deuteronomy 29:18).

The fools in question are said to be “willful sinners” who purposely disobey God’s commandments. But people are generally not so evil. They may be willful sinners only in Abravanel’s terms: mistaking “will” for “choice,” they refuse to choose life because they yearn only for the perfect, not for the possible. They choose the tidy ideals of heaven over the messy realities of earth, as if heaven were a matter of choice in the first place. The only thing we have, however, is earth and the parsha urges us to take advantage of it.

Welcome to a new year, not in heaven but on earth. “Choose life” — on earth — “if you want to live.”

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