Choose Life

Parshat Nitzavim is special because it reaffirms the covenant that we made with G-d. All of Israel was gathered together: ראשיהם שבטיכם זקניהם ושוטריכם: “Your tribal heads, elders and guards,”[1] to receive G-d’s words. The covenant was accepted with some special witnesses, as G-d says “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life ((ובחרת בחיים-that both you and your offspring may live.[2]

Was there really any choice besides life? What does it mean to choose life? In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides asserts that “choice is given to every person, whether he wishes to lead himself into a good path and be righteous or whether he wishes to lead himself into a bad path and be wicked; this is the meaning of ‘Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad.’[3] Humankind is unique in the world in that a human can know the good and the bad from his/her own mind and thought and do whatever s/he pleases, without anyone coercing him/her.” He continues, “This (free choice) is a fundamental principle of the Torah and its mitzvoth, as it says ‘See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.’ This means that choice is given to you, and whatever a person desires to do of human doings s/he may do-whether good or bad. It is on account of this that it says ‘May they always be of such mind, to revere Me and follow all My commandments, that it may go well with them and with their children forever.’[4] Thus, the Creator, does not coerce people or pre-destine them to do good or bad, rather everything is given over for them to choose.[5]

Maimonides takes a philosophical perspective that our mission in life is to make proper choices. The Torah T’mimah, a compilation of teachings from the Talmud and Midrash about biblical verses, references the Yerushalmi,[6] where Rabbi Yishmael teaches that choosing life refers to teaching a trade. One of the requirements is for a parent to ensure that his/her children will be self-sufficient through their learning a trade, and if the parents do not do so, the child must teach himself. The reason for this is our verse, ‘that you,’ and by implication the offspring which emanate from you, shall live.[7]  Making the right choices begins through proper instruction from one’s parents, and it is a parent’s obligation to set his/her child on the proper path.

There were numerous translations of the Torah into Aramaic, called the Targumim, or “translations”. Each week we are commanded to study שני מקרא ואחד תרגום, the weekly portion twice in Hebrew and once in translation. The most common translation read is Onkelos, from a convert who has the most literal translation from Hebrew to Aramaic. One of my favorites to read, however, is Targum Yonatan, as there are added elements to the text. Yonatan translates our passage as “choose the way of life-that is Torah-so that you will live the life of the world to come, both you and your children.”[8] Yonatan adds the elements of making life, or חיים, synonymous with Torah, as well as the fact that the life being referenced to is that of the world to come.

Of the three interpretations, Rambam is the most rational-G-d, in His beneficence, gives us the opportunity to choose our destiny, that it is up to us to live lives of meaning, Torah and G-dliness. The Torah T’mimah goes one step further, asserting that we must educate the next generation on the proper path so they will follow in our footsteps. Targum Yonatan in some ways is the most difficult of the three, as it is focused on following Torah not to beat fruit in this world but for a reward in a world to come, which is difficult to grasp. However, I think he is saying that through living a life of Torah, we will ensure that our offspring will also do so and they will pay it forward to their children. In so doing, the household will continue to choose the proper path.

It’s not always so easy to see things this way in our culture that promotes individualization and secularism. In his article “The Heretical Imperative,” Peter Berger writes that a hareisis originally meant “the taking of a choice,”[9] meaning that in some sense we are all Jews by choice today. We can choose to live a Jewish life, observe Halacha, study the wisdom from our tradition, or we can choose not to. In his book Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that we need to invest more of our resources in Jewish education. That education must be not only for our children and grandchildren but also for ourselves. How many of us take the time to study Talmud or Midrash, which are readily accessible in English translations? How many of us strive to increase our personal Jewish observance, whether coming more often to support our minyan, refraining from doing work on Shabbat, or increasing our level of kashrut? If we don’t set the example, if we don’t teach the trade, our children and grandchildren will not get the message. This is something I am increasingly aware of as my daughter grows and develops her capabilities for understanding and processing knowledge.

As we approach another Rosh Hashanah, the onset of 5777, let us make the choice to strengthen our Jewish lives. As we gather together for meals with family and friends, may we ensure that there is Jewish content: the saying of brachot before and after eating, the singing of zmirot, or special holiday songs, and the teaching of Torah at the meal. Through choosing to engage in Torah, we will increase the richness of our holiday and set an example for the coming generations to emulate. Let us choose wisely and may it lead to us having a blessed and enriched 5777.

[1] Deuteronomy 29:9

[2] Deuteronomy 30:19

[3] Genesis 3:22

[4] Deuteronomy 5:26

[5] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of T’shuvah, 5:1, 5:3

[6] Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 1:7

[7] Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, Torah Temimah, Deuteronomy 30:19

[8] Tagrum Yonatan, Deuteronomy 30:19

[9] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative, (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 11.

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