The Torah is a template for interpretation; not a very new or radical idea, however we often don’t fully appreciate how important this fact is. Since the Torah is also a magnificently constructed narrative we are often seduced by the narrative and ask ourselves: “What did such and such a character in the narrative mean by this or by that word or action.” But the example of our sages is precisely to disconnect from the narrative and try to uncover the existential insights both of the original authors, whoever they may have been, and, perhaps more importantly, how the nuggets of insight they left for us help us understand better our own place in the Universe.
Therefore, let us disconnect from the flow of the narrative for a moment, and consider one of the most famous of these nuggets of insight in our own light.
הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—
For a moment I am tempted to simply end my remarks right there, rather than explain or fill with pious cliches. It seems sufficient to repeat this phrase a few times, somewhat meditatively, and allow it to penetrate our consciousness in the fashion of poetry which at its deepest level, it is. Can one imagine a more appropriate phrase for the time we are living through? Can one imagine a more appropriate phrase to keep in our mouths and our hearts as we prepare to enter into the majesty of the High Holy Days – a majesty in no way less majestic because of the new and strange format we will use to negotiate them?
Yet, if we are going to be true to the idea that the Torah is a template for interpretation, it is incumbent on us to not merely meditate but to interpret. And what interpretation means is certainly to put ourselves into the crucible of the text; to internalize the solemnity and the power of the commanding voice that is imagined – why should the voice be assigned such power? – in other words, before we even get to the content of the verse, what is the significance of the voice?
Obviously, a commanding voice can be understood as being external from us. That is, it is not something we make up, but something we encounter. It may be mediated by a human voice, as here the voice of God is mediated by the voice of Moses, but whether mediated or encountered directly, it is real. Since the commanding voice comes to us from outside of ourselves, from that which is other, it explodes our self-containment. The other puts our concern for ourselves in question. It is essential that we understand that what the Torah presents as the voice of God, however we understand that phrase, is not the God within. It comes to us from outside and puts our very selfhood in question. We are not a true self without another.
And the other that puts our self-containment in question is not only to be understood as other people or even other sentient beings, but rather the entirety of material reality itself. Heaven and earth put themselves before us as a question; a question that contains all the other questions that might be asked of us. The questions that force us to see the humanity of all human beings and ask how we choose life in the context of human society? The questions that force us to see the sanctity of all the disparate creatures of the natural world and ask us how we choose life in the context of husbandry and agriculture? All are subsumed by the overarching question: how do we choose life in the context of the cosmos itself?
Are these questions too big for you? Are they so enormous that we end up feeling absolved from answering them? In the face of that possibility, the Torah responds: you are confronted at every moment by the possibility of death – the indigenous curse, as it were, built into life – and if you do not choose to ask yourself how to live, you will surely die and with your death your offspring and their offspring will certainly die. What makes this command a command is that it is unavoidable. What makes the ritual of the Yomim HaNoraim – what makes these days days of awe, is precisely the unavoidability of the choice – its commanding nature.
To truly live, I believe the Torah is teaching that one must acknowledge the interruption of one’s self-containment by the command of the other – the multiple others from nature itself to the next-door neighbor, from the members of our own community to the many others who suffer from unconscionable abuse built into our nation’s deepest infrastructure. We who close ourselves off from the ways in which we continue to abuse humans, animals, forests, the very air we breathe, must be aware that we are consigning ourselves and our offspring to certain death.
Self-absorption, either individually or communally, is the Torah’s prescription for death. Assuming responsibility for the full range of otherness outside ourselves is the sure prescription for life. We will certainly die, but we can bequeath life or death. That is the choice this verse puts before us and it has been waiting for our response for millennia.
Answering these questions responsibly has not been a hallmark of human society throughout the ages. We are far from the first generation that seems intent on choosing death rather than life. In fact, one can argue that compared to previous generations we may be doing a little better. At the same time it appears that the stakes have risen exponentially. In the face of those stakes, the Torah argues strongly against despair. Rather, it calls upon us to recognize just how much power we have, just how powerful the choice for life can be. It is and can be transformative. But the choice needs to be articulated in more than simple words. It is in and through the full panoply of everyday activities that the new consciousness of life-choosing must be woven. It is this that gives rise to the idea of mitzvot. The specific acts that constitute mitzvot are historically conditioned. More important than the mitzvot our ancestors developed as their answer to the imperative of choosing life, is the reality that such a choice requires acts. Acts that by furthering the life-choosing force are sanctified. The real challenge of contemporary Jewish life, and I would suggest the life of the entire human community, is to identify and enact the sacred acts required by the present moment.
The Torah equates life with blessing, and as we’ve seen, death with curse. What is the connection between life and blessing? Our tradition indicates that blessing is, if you will, a unit of life consciousness. It is a formula we use to recognize that the act we are about to perform is a life-choosing act. We are at a moment that requires the development of a host of new blessings to encompass the new acts of life-consciousness that these times require: blessings for acts of environmental justice, blessings for acts of racial justice, blessings for acts of compassion for those crushed by the unbridled power of the corporate culture. The old blessings need to be re-invigorated so that we understand that they are, what I like to call, the quanta of life-consciousness. The new blessings need to be composed and invoked as responses to the closing in around us of self-absorption that threatens existence itself.
The weight and the hope of this Torah verse, is that it is a command. The command is not to choose between life and death–the command is to choose life. We have no choice. We will choose life. That is the promise of the Torah, the faith of the Torah one might say. As dark as the sky might seem, the light is nevertheless only temporarily hidden. What is so awesome about the days of awe is that we have the opportunity, the power, to move the darkness aside and let the light in. In fact, we have no choice but to do so and it will, without doubt, bring blessing to the world. That is my wish for us all this coming year.
Rabbi Ira F. Stone