“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, so that you may live, you and your children.” – Deuteronomy 30:19
As we near the end of the life and times of Moses, his speech to the Israelites picks up steam and power. One of the most profound statements in the Torah is found near the beginning of this week’s parsha. Moses tells the Israelites that heaven and earth bear witness that Moses has given the Israelites a choice. The ultimate choice. They can choose life or they can choose death. Then in dramatic fashion, the people are then instructed to choose life.
Choose life! To life! L’chaim! This is the essence of Judaism. We toast to life. We sing to life. Life is a gift and we choose to use it well. The life we are given is a life of choices. We are instructed to make the choices that are the choices of life. It is so simple, yet so profound. Especially when we consider the religious leanings of the ancients, where death was so integral to their religions, where human sacrifice was normal, the Torah’s charge to choose life bellows loudly with its profundity and its eternal message echoes across the millennia.
This verse is an example of the best of the Bible. Its dramatic overtones staking out the all encompassing issues of the human experience. When our souls feel lost we must always remember to choose life. That is the great compass of Judaism. Find life and go that way. Choose life!
For all its drama in the Bible, the Talmud brings this verse back down to earth with a shocking thud. Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva have a dispute about just what it means to choose life. Rabbi Yishmael says that “life” refers to a trade or a craft – the ability to earn a livelihood. We are being instructed to choose a means to make a living. Rabbi Akiva says that life refers to matters of safety and recreation like swimming and boating. Ti him, choosing life means taking care of one’s physical condition and making certain that one is prepared for a physical world that carries with it inherent danger.
These interpretations, while utilitarian and wise, seem to be so impossible to hear in the context of the verse that we are left to wonder if these great rabbi can actually be serious. Moses is building to a crescendo in his speech and he takes a break from the sublime to discuss career options and water sports? The verse was so powerful in its basic meaning, where is the depth and the beauty now?
The obvious answer is yes. Indeed, it is sublime to live a life engaged in the world. That is the climax. That is the greatest life that can be chosen. We are to be active participants in the economic and social structure of our world and to do so ever mindful and aware of G-D and one’s Judaism – that is life! To choose life is to to live a life. An actual life. A normal, productive, material life. When one lives that life to its fullest and lives one’s Judaism to the fullest we are truly choosing life.
Choosing life does not mean that one should cut their self off from society. Life is to live amongst men and women. But to live this life elevated and infused with spirituality as one lives amongst others – that is to choose life. There is a place for meditation and reflection or even temporary complete immersion into Torah and purely spiritual pursuits. But u’vacharta b’chaim – to choose life – is only when that is firmly welded to material pursuits and responsibility.
Rabbi Yishmael was the same great sage who famously argued with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In his statement about the topic of working for a living, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught that one should do G-D’s will and their work will be performed by others. Rabbi Yishmael argued that one should work the land and earn a livelihood. His views on this matter are clear. Life is to work.Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.
If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.
Imported and Older Comments:
- Report: Iran Signs $16.6 Billion Deal With Boeing
on December 11, 2016 2:03 PM
- Deadly Bombing at Cairo’s Largest Coptic Christian Cathedral
on December 11, 2016 1:34 PM
- Survey Shows Israelis’ Top Concern Is Livable Income
on December 11, 2016 11:37 AM
- Democratic Congresswoman Introduces ‘Stop Arming Terrorists Act’
on December 11, 2016 10:06 AM
- State Attorneys to Request 1-Month Delay on Amona Evacuation
on December 11, 2016 1:24 AM
- 29 killed in Istanbul double bombing, 27 Police, 10 suspects Arrested
on December 11, 2016 12:27 AM
- Trump’s Secy of State Expected to be ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson
on December 10, 2016 11:49 PM
- Patti Smith Forgets Lines as Nobel Awarded to Bob Dylan in Absentia [video]
on December 10, 2016 10:18 PM
- Confirmed: US Airstrike Kills ISIS Terrorist Behind Charlie Hebdo, Hyper Cacher Massacres
on December 10, 2016 10:04 PM
- Senate to Vote on Holocaust Restitution as Vienna Philharmonic Returns Looted Painting
on December 10, 2016 9:09 PM
- MK Oren Hazan Rapped for Speeding on Highway to Eilat
on December 10, 2016 8:17 PM
- UN Committee to Vote on Blacklist Against Israel-Linked Companies
on December 10, 2016 7:28 PM
- Bomb Kills 6 Police Near Pyramids [video]
on December 9, 2016 2:41 PM
- Russian diplomat: Moscow, Jerusalem Friendship at Highest Point Ever
on December 9, 2016 10:59 AM
- Elbit Reality Smartglasses to Test with Cyclists [video]
on December 9, 2016 10:16 AM