Yom Kippur 5783 – The “Choose” in “Choose Life”

If I ever doubted that the Torah is speaking to me, it’s spelled out at the beginning of our Yom Kippur morning reading.  Moses orates God’s message to the Israelites in his final speech in Deuteronomy, chapter 29, verses 13 and 14: “And not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with each one who stands among us this day in the presence of Adonai our God, and with each one who is not here among us this day.”

Those not in attendance are the generations yet unborn. That is why the Talmud says: we are all mushba ve-omed meHar Sinai, “foresworn from Sinai.” (Yoma 73b, Nedarim 8a)  Hence, we do not choose to be Jews. We are born as Jews.  We might consider converts as an exception; yet, upon conversion they become as if born Jews and are not exempt from the mutual commitments of God’s covenant with the Jewish People.  You might be thinking that being Jewish by default, by an irrefutable association with our ancestors who stood in front of Moses, flies in the face of the contemporary buzz phrase:  we are all Jews by Choice.  Indeed, this phrase gets a legitimate prooftext in another rabbinical collection: Pirkei Avot 3:16 offers a confusing but powerful vision: “Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted.” Commentators interpret this to mean that while God has full knowledge of all of our choices, we independently choose to make them. Even if we were to believe in predestination, we still have free will!

How does this work on the ground? Many people speak of Jews by birth and Jews by choice. In some ways, this is an artificial distinction. We actively choose to live a Jewish life. Whether or not we were born to Jewish parents, when we are reading a Jewish newspaper, participating in any Jewish organization, especially in a congregation, learning Torah, learning Hebrew, celebrating holidays, or any other Jewish lifecycle activity, we are actively choosing to live a Jewish life. It does not happen in a vacuum or by itself. It happens because we make a decision, day after day, to participate, to study, to pray, to learn, to live.

The choice to live a Jewish life, irrespective of our birth, is entirely our own, re-iterates orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (may his memory be for blessing), who takes the issue of choice to a more powerful level of personal commitment.  He asks: “How can religious identity be passed on from parent to child? If identity were merely ethnic, we could understand it. We inherit many things from our parents – most obviously our genes. But being Jewish is not a genetic condition. For generations before us, the question “Why be Jewish?” did not arise. The answer was self-evident. I am Jewish because that is what my parents were and theirs before them, back to the dawn of Jewish time. Existential questions arise only when we feel there is a choice. For much of history, Jewish identity was not a choice. It was a fact of birth, a fate, a destiny. It was not something you chose, any more than you choose to be born.”

For the first time in the Middle Ages, in Spain most especially, when Jews were pressured to convert, staying Jewish came to be seen not just as a fate but as a choice. It is also why, in an age in which everything signifcant seems open to choice, it is being asked again in our time, leading us to the most poignant verse in our Torah reading today, chapter 30, verse 19:

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today. I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life – so that you and your children may live…” (Deut. 30:19). Choose life.

A disclaimer here and clarification – The Torah text is not referring to the politics of Reproductive Freedom, as some have misused this expression.

I believe that no religion, no civilization, has insisted so strenuously and consistently that we can choose. When the Torah states that God puts life and death before us, our tradition is not telling us to decide whether to live or die, but that every choice we make from birth to death matters. These choices range from how we treat our loved ones to how we spend money; from whom we bring into our world view, to how we choose our food. What is it about each of these large and also small decisions that warrants the weightiness of life and death?  As I see it, the answer lies in the impact each choice has on all other beings on the planet. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our choices affect not only ourselves, but life on a global level–when we choose to drive less, spend less, and consume less, we are choosing life. And we choose life each time we lift our voices to advocate for civil rights or environmental protection. Disasters on a global scale highlight the impact for the planet of human choices that don’t affirm life. Although disasters may seem “natural,” human choices play a large role. We know from the scientists and the researchers that global climate change caused by human manufacturing is exacerbating our planet’s vulnerability to unpredictable weather patterns. The intensity and impact of Hurricane Ian is just one more example of this reality. Poverty and a global imbalance of wealth created by human economic decisions greatly affect the scale of disasters. As Elizabeth Ferris from the Brookings Institute notes, “Chances of surviving a natural disaster are much higher in developed countries than in developing ones.” When we are told to choose life for ourselves, we are also commanded to choose sustainability for the planet.

Our sages, in a midrashic collection, 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. The old man 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.”

We haven’t resolved the question of “why be Jewish” except perhaps to direct us to the uniqueness of Jewish text and tradition in choosing life, that is, choosing, even without certainty, towards a just, ethical, and compassionate outcome.  Perhaps that is enough theoretically to warrant identification with set of ethics that makes us proud. Let me suggest as well that the verbs in this central verse are inspiring us to act, irrespective of results (a kind of counterpoint to all these High Holiday messages about being good ancestors to generations hence).  The verse translates into English as “I have placed before you blessing and curse. . . choose life.”  God is saying: I have made available to you all that there is to know about every issue, through every kind of media, through academic research and data, through Ted talks and colleague-talks and teacher-talks and tiktoks.  Indeed, I recently signed up to receive a weekly newsletter by an Atlantic Monthly blogger offering 10 or more diverse opinion essays on a contemporary issue of concern – thus affording me a chance to hear the news, parse the news through many other viewpoints, and then form my own opinion.  Similarly, this could be God placing all the choices before us and somehow dividing up these choices into ethically good or ethically bad, or some other division.  And then, WE CHOOSE.

Psychologically, In the process of making a choice, we consider for ourselves what is most logical, what feels just, what aligns with our style and our politics, what is best for our family, what gives us safety and security, and, most importantly, as our tradition teaches, what will benefit humanity at large.  And, then, we stand up, we lift up our voices in our choice and follow it with an act of will.

Choice is like a muscle: use it or lose it. To be a Jew means not going with the flow, not doing what others do just because they are doing it.  Judaism gives us 613 exercises, 613 mitzvot in the power of will to shape our choices. That is how we become authors of our lives (or co-authors if you believe in a divine partnership). “We have to be free”, said Isaac Bashevis Singer, “we have no choice!”  Today, we may focus on the platters of information around immigration, the war in Ukraine, reproductive justice, antisemitism, racism, our criminal justice system, democratic values, civil discourse, etc, etc., etc.  In the end, I guess we are all Jews by choice, as it is in the act of choosing that we may find acknowledgment and fulfillment of our most personal identity and presence in this world.

At the cusp of 5783, we stand before God and the fork in the road, and we have decisions to make. How can we best “choose life”?  Nothing sounds easier yet nothing has proved more difficult over time. Instead, people choose substitutes for life. They pursue wealth, possessions, status, power, fame, and to these gods they make the supreme sacrifice, realizing too late that true wealth is not what you own but what you are thankful for, that the highest status is not to care about status, and that influence is more powerful than power.

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 decisions that are true to who we are, and in doing so, act justly and with integrity, when we follow the rich tradition of our people, when we don’t set up false idols, when we commit ourselves to working for the wellbeing of others, then, we choose life.

The Hebrew word for “choose” is bocheir.  It means prefer, select, and, also vote.  The passive form means “chosen” and “of excellent quality.”  Just from this one word alone, being Jewish, to me, grants the freedom of personal agency, to choose to elevate life on earth to its highest potential, morally guided by the precepts of our sacred texts.  May we all share or at least consider this response to “why be Jewish” in this era and in our culture of cancelling out the religious impulse that feeds our very soul.

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