How To Choose Life

Nitzavim Vayeilekh | Rosh Hashanah By :  Melissa Crespy JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Aug 31, 2002 / 5762 | Holidays

We stand at an exciting and important time in the Jewish year. We stand less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, when so many of us will spend hours in synagogue praying for a good, healthy and fulfilling new year. We stand in a moment of transition, filled with potential. There is so much we can do, so much we can learn, so much we can become.

Our ancestors, too, stood at such a transitional moment — as recounted in our parashah: “Atem nitzavim hayom” — “You stand this day — all of you” before the Lord your God..” (Deut. 29:9). They were on the verge of entering the holy land, the land promised them for so long. And in Moses’ last words to them, he exorted them to be faithful to God’s laws, God’s commandments and the way God had set out for them. The parashah is filled with beautiful and poetic calls to each and every Israelite — “from woodchopper to water drawer (29:10) — to remember the pact they made with God, to remember God’s miracles toward them, to pass on this compelling history to their children, to remember that God loves them and to “choose life” (30:19).

Though this verse is often quoted out of context, its meaning in context is quite clear: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.” (Deut. 30:19?20).

Our sages, in Midrash Tanhuma (Re’eh 3) expressed this beautifully in a parable: “An old man sat on a highway from which there branched two roads, [one full of thorns at the beginning but level at the end], and the other level at the beginning but full of thorns at the end. So he sat at the fork of the road and cautioned passers—by, saying, “Even though the beginning of this road is full of thorns, follow it, for it will turn level in the end.’ Whoever sensibly heeded the old man and followed that road did get a bit weary at first, to be sure, but went on in peace and arrived in peace. Those who did not heed the old man set out on the other road and stumbled in the end. So it was with Moses, who explicitly said to Israel, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your offspring may live.'”

Once again, at the cusp of 5763, we stand before God and the fork in the road, and we have decisions to make. How can we best “choose life”? How can we best take this relatively short life we are granted and make it the most meaningful, the most fulfilling, the most righteous, the most holy life that it can be? The midrash tells us that the path to goodness, the path to righteousness is not easy (most important things in life are not easy) — there will be thorns along the way (perhaps painful ethical, financial, ritual, or familial decisions to make). But when we make the right decisions ? when we act justly and with integrity, when we follow the rich tradition that God and our people have bestowed upon us, when we don’t set up false idols, when we commit ourselves to working for the well—being of others, our lives will be good ones, fulfilling, rich and holy.

K’tivah v’hatimah tovah — May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good, fulfilling, ethical, peaceful and holy year.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.