By Shlomo Riskin
“Behold I give before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing, when you will hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God… and the curse, if you will not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God and you swerve from the path…” (Deut.11:26-27)
We are reaching the third and final covenant of these Five Books of the Holy Torah, the covenant not only with a family (Abraham and his progeny forever, Gen. 15) and not only with a Divinely committed and religiously dedicated “people” (the Sinaitic Covenant, Ex. 20), but this time with a nation about to enter into a land, to form a nation-state, setting forth the terms of this nation-state’s engagement with the other nation-states in the world. It begins with the verses cited above and concludes with chapter 30 of the Book of Deuteronomy, a covenant addressing ish, the generic human being, according to rabbinic tradition, rather than the Jew, the Hebrew of the Israelite, and a covenant translated into 70 languages of the world.
This covenant may well be called the Covenant of Life (chaim). After all, its verses of introduction speak of a blessing and a curse, identified respectively with hearkening to God’s commandments or refusing to hearken to His commandments. The concluding verses of this covenant provide a deeper understanding of what the blessing really means by identifying the blessing with life and the curse with death, by charging us with the command to “choose life, you and your seed, to love the Lord your God, to hearken to His voice and to cleave unto Him, for He is your life and the length of your days to dwell upon your land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob” (Deut. 30:15-20).
The supercharged word ‘chaim,’ life, which really becomes synonymous with blessing whenever we lift a glass and cry out the traditional Jewish blessing “to life, l’chaim.” How can we choose life, for ourselves and our progeny? The length of our individual lives is not subject to anyone’s individual volition or desire. Moreover, the very word ‘chaim’ seems to be a rather strange noun; it is a plural word, ending with the usual plural suffix “-im”. Why does the word for life assume a plural form? And to be sure, the opening and closing paragraphs of this third covenant must certainly be taken together; after all, they each begin with the arresting word ‘re’eh’ — look, see — clearly suggesting a unity of connection between the two.
For some clarity, let us explore the first time that the word ‘chaim’ appears in the Bible: “And the Lord God formed the human being of dust from the earth, and He breathed into its nostrils the soul [or breath of life, nishmat haim] and the human being became a living being [nefesh haya]” (Gen. 2:7). The sacred Zohar, a mystical interpretation of the Bible, explains the stark imagery of the verse with the dictum that “whoever exhales, exhales the internal essence of his being,” which is to say that God “inspirited” into the physical human being a portion of Divinity, an actual, integral part of God from Above, as it were.
Hence within every material human being resides a soul, a neshama, a transcendent, eternal aspect of the Divine which enables him to reach for the spiritual, to overcome his physical instincts and limitations and to share in eternity.
It is this transcendent essence that separates the human being (neshama) from every other physical creation. And since the double letter “yod” spells out an attribution of God, the living human soul (nishmat haim) contains within himself an element of the Divine; hence the living human is never alone, God is always with him and within him, and so human life is in the plural. This is the true blessing of l’chaim, may you always feel the blessing of God with you and within you throughout all of your endeavors.
The truest expression of the Divine within the human lies in the ability of the human to transcend himself, to communicate with others, to express concern for others, to love others. Hence the Bible underscores the human need for companionship, prefacing the creation of Eve with the Divine value judgment: “It is not good for the human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and so it is a Divine command to marry and have children.
God communicates to us human souls through His Torah, the way of life He wishes us to adopt in order for the world to live, in compassionate righteousness and moral justice. We communicate with future generations by passing down our Torah narrative from generation to generation, and insofar as our teachings and our lifestyles are communicated successfully, we continue to live and God continues to live through them and in them. And so our hearkening to the Divine commandments truly gives blessings and even eternal life. And it is also this communication through the generations which makes chaim, eternal life, a plural noun.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel.