By Shlomo Riskin
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life” (Deut. 30:19)
What does it mean to choose life? Is life then ours to choose? The Torah should have written to “choose good,” which I would understand because good seems within my control. But life and death? Go tell the children in a cancer ward to choose life! How many young people receive harsh decrees from heaven? So what does it mean to “choose life”? A person can choose life! As Sigmund Freud taught, built into the human psyche is not only a passion for life, but also a passion for death, not only a will to create, but also a will to destroy – and sometimes even to self-destruct.
The first thing one must do is to avoid the lure of death. Despite the awareness of danger in certain lifestyles – indiscriminate sex, excessive alcohol, drugs etc – many pursue thrills until the last chill, when it’s too late. Good and evil are abstractions; a genius in the art of rationalization only requires one hour to totally confuse himself and others about their moral foundations. But life and death are not abstractions. People who overdose on drugs or alcohol are real. And when the Torah says “choose life,” it means avoid a lifestyle, or fanatical religion, which promotes death rather than life.
A second, less dramatic way, of choosing life is by not wasting time; hours spent in front of the TV, at best watching people running in pursuit of a ball and at worst inviting violence and pornography into our homes. We don’t need an accountant to inform us that the hours soon become days, weeks, even months. The simple act of shutting off most programs on TV and opening a worthwhile book is an example of choosing life. In modern Hebrew, the term for going out and having a good time is levalot – which is derived from bilui, a word which actually means to wear something out, to turn a usable garment into an outworn rag. In modern Hebrew slang, the expression lisrof zman, to burn time, is equivalent to the Americanism “to kill time,” all pointing to the inherent destruction in improper time management.
You can commit suicide in one moment. Or you can commit suicide in a lifetime of wasted moments. The number of years a person is given is not under their control, but what we do with the moments God has given us, is. If we choose not to waste these precious moments, we have “chosen life.”
And there is yet a third way to choose life, in the larger sense of the word – not just life as the avoidance of death, but life in its fullest meaning.
An older version of the Targum (Aramaic translation of the Bible) on the verse, “…Not by bread alone does the human being live, but by that which proceeds from God’s mouth does the human being live” (Deut. 8:3), is revealing. It translates, “Not on bread alone does the human being exist (mitkayem) but on what proceeds from God’s mouth does the human being live (hayei).” Bread gives us kiyum – existence, the ability to stand on our feet, to work, to survive. But that which emanates from God’s mouth provides life with meaning, purpose, participation in eternity.
Material subsistence is existence; spiritual and intellectual engagement in improving self and society is life. Bread is existence; Shabbat and compassion are life. Food, clothing and shelter are necessities, but they are necessities for existence. Humans require an objective which goes beyond existence. As Victor Frankel, noted psychologist-philosopher and founder of logotherapy, discovered in the concentration camps, the most important drive within humans is not the will for pleasure or even the will for power, but the will for meaning. Those who had a higher meaning, who were involved in helping others survive, in calculating in their heads different mathematical or philosophical problems or in preserving and copying segments from the prayer books or the Bible from memory stood a better chance of surviving the horrendous living conditions of the concentration camps. This search for purpose beyond one’s own physical survival, this quest for self-transcendence and reaching out for the infinite, is what comes forth from God’s mouth and it is what the Targum refers to as “life.”
The search for pleasure is linked to the body, and since the body is finite, the fruits of the search are also finite. The Torah is immortal and infinite. An individual home is destructible; the Land of Israel for the people of Israel is eternal. Materialistic goods are existence; Torah and Israel are life. The keeping of the commandments and the inheritance of the Land of Israel are in themselves involvement with eternity, participating in eternity. This is the real meaning of the Biblical command: Choose life!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone and founding rabbi of Efrat, Israel.