“Choosing Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There’s something very distinctive about the arrival of the Jewish New Year. Whenever the Jewish High Holiday season draws near there’s always a special feeling in the air. Somehow, the secular New Year that occurs in the middle of the winter just doesn’t measure up. It doesn’t radiate the feeling of a new year, a new beginning. The calendar may say so, the football bowl games may be the focus of everyone’s attention, but it simply doesn’t feel like the genuine start of the year!

The Jewish High Holidays, on the other hand, always usher in a sense of a new beginning. People return from vacation, students prepare for school, and a new cycle begins. It is a season of transformations, as summer comes to a close and fall commences. It is as well a natural time for contemplation, as people plan for the new season, for family and for business. Some people may even be under the mistaken impression that Labor Day is part of the Jewish calendar. Could it be that some Divine conspiracy is choreographing this exceptional time period, so that even atheists are forced to acknowledge Rosh Hashana? I wouldn’t be the least surprised.

And wonder of wonders, how coincidental is it that at this very time of the year, the themes of the weekly Torah readings suddenly seem to blend perfectly with the High Holiday themes. Instead of the usual rules, regulations and laws, Moses, in his final days as leader, pleads with the Jewish people to remain faithful to G-d.

This week’s parashiot, Nitzavim and Vayeilech, contain some of the most exalted poetry known to humankind. Listen to these dramatic words (Numbers 30:19): “Ha’eedoti ba’chem ha’yom et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz,” I call the Heavens and the Earth today to bear witness against you, “Ha’chayim v’hamavet nah’tatee l’fah’necha,” I have placed life and death before you, “Hab’racha v’hak’lalah,” the blessing and the curse. And now the punch line: “U’vacharta ba’chayim, l’maan tich’yeh, a’tah v’zar’ehcha,” And you shall choose life, so that you may live, you and your offspring!

The Al-mighty begs His children, beseeches them with all His might, to choose life. He tells us that living the moral life–loving G-d and clinging to Him, will not only benefit the upright person, but will redound to the benefit of children and to later generations. After all, the truly good person must surely want to see his good works continued by his progeny. On the other hand, if a person obeys the commandments only halfheartedly or regards them as a burden, his children will naturally be unenthusiastic about embracing those values.

G-d’s instruction to “Choose Life” seems pretty straightforward. All one need do is, as it says in Deuteronomy 30:20: “L’ah’ava et Hashem Eh’lokecha, lish’moah b’koloh, ul’davkah vo,” To love the Lord your G-d, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him.

But choosing life is not as simple as it sounds. We humans are often blocked by our so-called “defense mechanisms,” which make it so difficult to acknowledge that our daily behaviors may not be entirely correct. In fact, our generation is notorious for rationalizing its actions and justifying its misdeeds. Remember that popular song “You Light Up My Life”? The line: “How could it be wrong, if it feels so right?” — rings virtually as a tag line for the values espoused during the final quarter century of the second millennium.

A true story: Two congregations in Johannesburg, South Africa, one Orthodox, the other Liberal, decided to hold a joint forum to discuss the topic: “The differences and similarities between Jews.” Nothing quite as controversial as this topic had ever been chosen before, and a huge crowd from both congregations gathered that evening. The first speaker, the Orthodox rabbi, cited the well known passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a): “Yisrael, af al pee sheh’chata, Yisrael hu,” A Jew, though sinful, is always a Jew–implying that all Jews, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Zionist, cultural, no matter how far they’ve strayed, are always regarded as Jews.

The Liberal rabbi rose and saw Joe, the President of his Temple, in the audience, and asked Joe to stand so that he could run a few questions by him. “Joe,” the rabbi asked, “Do you observe Shabbat?” Joe responded, “Of course rabbi!” “Do you drive on Shabbat?” asked the rabbi. “Of course, what’s wrong with driving on Shabbat?” questioned Joe. “What about kosher, Joe? Do you have a Kosher home?” asked the rabbi. “Kosher!” said Joe, “Of course not! That went out long ago. There’s no fear of trichinosis today. We no longer need those ancient laws!”

The Liberal rabbi then turned to Sam, the President of the Orthodox synagogue, who was also in the audience, and asked him to stand for a few moments. Sam’s knees began to shake, he wanted to run and hide rather than “face the music” in public. His friends, however comforted him by saying, “Sam, we know the answers. Don’t be afraid!”

Sam rose haltingly, his face red like a beet. He was truly mortified. “Sam,” said the Liberal rabbi, “What about you? Do you keep the Shabbat?” Sam hemmed and hawed. He was embarrassed and began to sweat. “I try,” he responded meekly. “What about driving on Shabbat, Sam?” asked the rabbi. Sam looked around, everyone in the room was now gawking at him. “I try not to drive,” he responded, barely audibly, “But in inclement weather I do drive, though I never park in the parking lot, always at least two blocks away!” The audience snickered. “What about kosher?” asked the Liberal rabbi. “At home we have two sets of dishes,” Sam said hesitantly, “But on the road, it’s difficult…” His voice faded away.

“You see!” said the Liberal rabbi, his hands held aloft triumphantly, “We are all the same. Liberal and Orthodox! One people, one nation!”

The audience went wild.

Sitting in the audience was a visitor, a well-known rabbi from Israel, who asked for permission to speak. He turned to the Orthodox rabbi, congratulated him on his presentation, then turned to the Liberal rabbi and raved about his brilliant presentation. “But,” he said to the Liberal rabbi, “When you asked Joe, the President of your Liberal Temple, whether he kept Shabbat or kashruth, he basically dismissed the notion. When you asked Sam, the President of the Orthodox synagogue, the same questions, you, in effect, received the same answers, but Sam hemmed and hawed, turned red, and was mortified.

“This,” said the rabbi from Israel, “is what the prophet Isaiah means when he says (Isaiah 1:18): “Im yeeh’yu chata’eichem kah’shanim, kah’sheleg yal’beenu; Im yah’adeemu kah’tolah, ka’tzemer yeeh’yu.” Even if your sins will be red like scarlet, they will become as white as snow. If they are like crimson, they shall become white like wool. If you feel “guilt” for what you’ve done, says the prophet, then there is a possibility that you will change. But if there’s no sense of guilt, then there is no chance for improvement.”

Believe it or not, Judaism believes in “guilt.” Not destructive guilt, like “You better improve or G-d will punish you. Lightening will strike!,” but “constructive” guilt, like “You could do better,” or “You could improve!” In 1973, the well known physician-philosopher Karl Menninger authored a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? in which he bemoaned the loss of values in the Western World, and the blanching of the distinctions between right and wrong. We dare not allow that to happen to us –- the Jewish people. We are, after all, the people whose entire “raison d’etre” is to affirm those very distinctions.

The Hebrew month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays, is our month of introspection. The Shofar is sounded each day to arouse us from our stupor. As hard as it might seem, healthy, constructive guilt is a blessing. It serves as a catalyst to override our defense mechanisms, and to help us acknowledge the changes that we need to make in order to improve our lives and to perfect our situation.

May the coming New Year be a time of blessing and health, a time of positive growth for all the People of Israel, and may we truly enlighten the world with our good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.