The Temple Institute & Parashat Nitzavim: “Choose Life”

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“Choose life!”

(Deuteronomy 30:19)

Elul 27, 5779/September 27, 2019

“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather,this thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

It’s easy! Following the path of Torah, living the commandments, binding one’s soul and fate to the G-d of Israel is easy! It doesn’t require the physical prowess of a Hercules, nor does it demand the philosophical insight of a Socrates. You don’t need to know much about history, and you don’t need to know much about biology. This is the message of this week’s Torah reading of Nitzavim, the final Torah reading of the outgoing year of 5779. The way of Torah is so within reach, so doable, so user friendly, it’s almost a no-brainer.

Yet… “And a later generation, your descendants, who will rise after you, along with the foreigner who comes from a distant land, will say, upon seeing the plagues of that land and the diseases with which HaShem struck it: Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow anything, not even any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which HaShem overturned in His fury and in His rage. And all the nations will say, Why did HaShem do so to this land? What is the reason for this great rage of fury? Then they will say, It is because they abandoned the covenant of HaShem, G-d of their fathers, the covenant which He made with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt, For they went and served other deities, prostrating themselves to them deities which they had not known, and which He had not apportioned to them. And HaShem’s fury raged against that land, bringing upon it the entire curse written in this book. And HaShem uprooted them from upon their land, with fury, anger and great wrath, and He cast them to another land, as it is this day.” (ibid 29:21-27)

It is every bit is easy to stray from the path of Torah and abandon the G-d of Israel. It’s almost a given that Israel will stray, parashat Nitzavim is telling us. As easy as it is to live one’s life in the light of Torah, it is equally easy to abandon Torah. And this is truly the message and the challenge that Nitzavim places before us, front and center:

“Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil, inasmuch as I command you this day to love HaShem, your G-d, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments, His statutes, and His ordinances, so that you will live and increase, and HaShem, your G-d, will bless you in the land to which you are coming to take possession of it. But if your heart deviates and you do not listen, and you will be drawn astray, and you will prostrate yourself to other deities and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you will surely perish, and that you will not live long days on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to come and take possession thereof. This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses that I have warned you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live; To love HaShem your G-d, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life and the length of your days, to dwell on the land which HaShem swore to your forefathers to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov to give to them.” (ibid 30:15-20).

It rests entirely upon our shoulders… the responsibility is entirely our own: we choose what path we will take. There is not a hard path and an easy path. They are both easy. But there is a good path and an evil path, a path of life and a path of death. G-d, in His infinite love for man, gives us His advice, insider information, as it were: “You shall choose life”… advice, not a commandment.

What path will we choose? This is the question posed in parashat Nitzavim, and this is the question we need to be asking ourselves as we prepare to stand before G-d on Rosh HaShana, and give a full account of who we are. Are we the person G-d intended when He created us? Are we the person “standing this day before HaShem, your G-d” (ibid 29:9), the person we were created to be? Or are we the person “not here with us, this day” (ibid 29:14) because we have allowed ourselves to become something we were never created to be? The choice is ours, and in the freedom of choice dwells the power of teshuva – of returning to our true selves, of returning to G-d. Take some advice from G-d: be the real you. The choice is easy – “choose life!”

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