“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.
The Torah’s injunction to Choose Life may be one of its best known and quoted commandments. But is it completely understood? Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, explains its depth and its relevance to every act a person makes.
“The life and the death I have given before you…in order that you should live, you and your seed.… And you shall choose life” (30:19). “Choosing life” is one of the highest accomplishments (Shaare Teshuvah III:17). This means that not only does Hashem allow us the free will to choose (a principle that materialist psychologists deny), He also gives us the information that we possess free will.
Further, Hashem in His great kindliness also urges us to choose life. This means that when we keep His Torah we not only are choosing life, we are pleasing Hashem who “desires life” (Yecheskel 18:23) for us. Thus, whenever a good deed is done, we can beforehand add the intention of fulfilling this mitzvah of “choosing life” in order to bring pleasure to Hashem Who is interested in the life of every one of His beloved (10:14-15, 14:1, 23:6, 33:26 and elsewhere) people.
To add this intention to our Mitzvos and good deeds, and to keep this intention in mind as much as possible, is one of the highest accomplishments. Thus instead of eating and sleeping by mere force of habit, or instead of being polite to our fellowmen because of custom alone, and instead of Tefillin and Mezuzos and Shabbos-observance and Kashrus without any additional thought, if we add the intention of causing pleasure to Hashem Who wishes that we choose Life, then we are attaining a very high degree of perfection.
But “choose life” is a mitzvah and therefore not optional. We are hereby sternly admonished to have compassion upon ourselves so that we gain the supreme gift called Life. What is this gift of Life? It is the priceless opportunity to live longer, in order to achieve more and more perfection and merit, and it includes the infinite happiness of the endless Afterlife. Thus Hashem in this verse commands “You shall choose life” for your own benefit; to neglect or waste this opportunity to gain Life is one of the greatest catastrophes that could ever happen.
To lack compassion on one’s self by failing to seek life is the crime of crimes. Hashem pleads with us to have pity on ourselves: “Choose life!” By doing that which is our duty, we are thereby gaining life in this world as well as eternal life in the Afterworld, for we have fulfilled the specific mitzvah in addition to fulfilling the general mitzvah of “choosing Life.”
A further insight: Except in certain instances (see Rambam, Teshuvah 6:3), Hashem does not interfere to cause men to choose evil. We see also that a man’s choice affects not only him but also his seed. This, though apparently a contradiction of the principle of free will, is understandable – for when a man dies, he cannot have any more children, and in this sense his deeds affect his (unborn) seed. Similarly, when one sheds his fellowman’s blood, he is held guilty for the blood of the victim and the blood of his (unborn) seed and the seed of his seed, forever (Bereishis Rabbah 22-21).
Meritorious deeds confer benefits not only on one’s unborn seed but also on the children that have already been born. Sons under the age of 13 (daughters under 12) are sometimes included in the punishment of the parent. Thus, the ” choice of life” is not only for the person alone; each man is urged to choose Life for his posterity, and for all those who may be influenced or affected by his choice.
Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.
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