Every year on Yom Kippur, we open our Torah and listen to Moses’ plea. Facing his own mortality, our leader has little time left to ensure his flock will have mastered the values he sought to impart to them. He begs them not to let his death be a trigger to relinquish all they have learned on their forty year journey. And he declares:
-הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your descendants might live.
In only half a sentence, Moses offers them and us a challenge that might occupy us our entire lives, but at the very least should give us pause us on this one day of the year. Choose life, that you and your descendants might live. It is a beautifully stated challenge, but one that has confounded Torah scholars throughout centuries. On this day when we try to come to terms with our own mortality, what could this command mean? Why does the Torah need to tell us to choose life? Under what circumstances would any of us willingly choose death?
In response, some concluded that this command must be a practical one, a mandate to focus on how to sustain our lives through material satisfaction. Our Rabbis (B. Kiddushin 30b) thus derive from this verse that a parent is obligated to teach her children a trade, a path towards meeting their life’s physical needs.
Others remind us that life --staying alive--is paramount in Jewish tradition and this command supports the premise that preserving life (pikuach nefesh) allows us to take all kinds of measures, even ones that violate other Jewish laws (Driving an ambulance on Shabbat is probably the most obvious example).
Today, however, I am focused on the idea that something more is being offered here. Knowing his hours are limited, surely Moses would not want to leave us with simple platitudes but with his most profound wisdom. Perhaps it’s not the specified outcomes that should demand our attention--life or death, blessing or curse--but the choosing. The power of Moses’ words lies in the affirmation that life is not to be taken for granted. How we spend our time matters. Choosing life, making decisions that sustain the life of our souls, is a conscious act with which we must be concerned at all times. It takes practice and entails actions that need to be re-considered regularly.
Rabbi Eliott Kukla puts it this way: “ 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. In each of these choices, we should choose life.” By Kukla’s account, our choices--even the ones that may seem inconsequential-- make a difference. They have an impact on the world and they determine what kind of life we will lead.
The rabbis of 2,000 years ago also passionately believed that every single one of our choices mattered. They wrote, in the Talmud, that: “A person should always consider himself or herself evenly balanced like a scale, half sinful and half righteous. If he performs one mitzvah, happy is he, for he has tilted the scales toward righteousness. But if he commits even one sin, woe unto him, for he has tilted the scales toward sinfulness.”
Consider, for a moment, how different our lives would be if every minute choice that we made mattered….if we treated every decision as if it was going to define forever who we are, and what we stand for.
Dayeinnu - that would be overwhelming enough.
But on this day of deep reflection, as we are challenged to consider what it truly means to live, the rabbis of the Talmud take this teaching one radical step further!
They imagine that it’s not just each individual person who has a scale in heaven that tracks whether the course of our lives leans toward reward or punishment. There is also a single massive scale that tracks the net total of everyone’s actions and behaviors every single day of our lives. Thus the rabbis continue:
“Inasmuch as the world is judged in accordance with the majority of its deeds, and the individual is judged in accordance with the majority of his deeds, if he or she performs one mitzvah, happy are they, for they have tipped their individual scale - and the scales of the entire world - toward merit. And if they commit one sin, woe unto them, for they have tipped the scales toward sinfulness for themselves and the world.”
To live our lives to the fullest is not just to take responsibility for our own individual choices. It is to understand that we are all interconnected. What I do in my life, and in my house, impacts the rest of the world. And what you do in your house impacts me, and all of us, as well.
We know this is true in terms of our fragile planet and its vulnerable environment, where we all have to pay the price of one polluter’s choices. And in our globalized economy, we understand that the economic choices we make here in Westchester impact labor and financial markets around the world.
Yom Kippur reminds us that we are all interconnected. How we choose to live our lives to the fullest impacts everyone else.
Some of us sitting here have done Mussar work together, a path towards making different kinds of choices than our instincts might dictate. Although Mussar encourages a fair amount of individual reflection, it is based on the belief that the very interconnected-ness you mention is what requires us to become the best people we can be. Mussar is intended to reduce unnecessary suffering, both for ourselves and for others. This strand of Jewish thought asks us to hone personality traits that ultimately prioritize the needs of our souls over the desires of our egos. It guides us to acknowledge and struggle with our weaknesses so that more of our time can be used to choose life.
To do this, Mussar asks us to aim for sacred balance in every trait we confront. We explore humility, patience, trust, honor, forgiveness, zealousness, equanimity--all to understand how they influence our behavior. Our deeds, according to the Rabbis and psychologists alike, confirm who we are by carving neural pathways in our brains that actually dictate the future choices we are likely to make based on the choices we have made in the past.
In the spirit of Mussar, NY Times columnist David Brooks has now famously challenged us to think about the impact of our choices and how they define us. In his newest book, The Road to Character, Brooks makes the distinction between resume values and eulogy values. He explains: “The resume values are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being---whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
Through an impressive catalogue of real life examples, Brooks affirms that honing eulogy values will require us to “join a counterculture” and begin to ask ourselves a new set of questions about our choices. Where our current society has trained us well to wonder: “What do I want from my life?”, he suggests that instead we begin to ask:” What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? What does this environment need in order to be made whole?”
This is, indeed, a reordering of the Torah’s command. In the sense that Brooks describes it, our ability to choose life is limited. Instead it is life that chooses us, and to fulfill our sacred purpose we need to respond to that call. This response will frequently require us to release our grasp on what he calls the “pursuit of pleasure” in favor of the “pursuit of struggle,” to give up the gnawing claims of our egos for the sake of unleashing the potential for good that lies within each of us. The option to heed life’s call is open to all of us and we affirm our own yearning to do so each time we work in a soup kitchen or stand up for an injustice in our society, when we take steps to protect the environment, when we choose to spend a piece of our lives in any place where brokenness of one sort or another exists.
David Brooks was not the only prominent public intellectual who contemplated the question of a rich and meaningful life this past year. Renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks also reflected on the question, particularly in the days leading up to his recent death.
In his final article, he chose to frame his reflection around the question of Shabbat. Although Sacks grew up in an observant Jewish home, he left that world when he turned 18, and had not really ever returned to it. Yet, through it all, he remained captivated by the meaning behind the hallmarks of a traditional Shabbat observance: particularly the ritual of formal meals with loved ones and friends, and the idea that one day out of seven, we might pause to rest and reflect. Thus he wrote:
“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
From a traditional Jewish perspective, I’m not sure if the work of our lives is ever ‘done’ in the way that Sacks means. But I am absolutely struck by the way in which Sacks seems to channel Abraham Joshua Heschel, and particularly Heschel’s famous 1951 essay The Sabbath. There, Heschel writes:
“Most of us seem to labor for the sake of [materialistic] things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”
How easy it is for us to get stuck on the treadmill...constantly filling our schedules with commitments that fill up our resumes, but that do not necessarily add meaning to our lives, or the lives of others.
As Heschel asks: “Is the joy of possession an antidote to the terror of time which grows to be a dread of inevitable death?”
He answers that question with a resounding No! The possession of material objects, and the lengthening of our resumes, cannot provide us with everything we need.
Heschel writes: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of [things], but to face sacred moments, [which transport] us beyond the confines of measured time….”
The gift that Sacks and Heschel bequeath to us is the gift of time: a giving-of-permission to pause from the rat race for one day a week...or even part of a one day!...just to catch our breath, and be with our family and community. That, too, is a path towards living our lives to the fullest, and making each day count.
This morning we read the words of Unetaneh Tokef which imagine that as the sun sets tonight, God will have closed the Book of Life and decided what kind of year lies ahead for us --who shall live and who shall die, who by water and who by fire. But when I read those words there is no question in my mind that this is simply our ancestors’ metaphor to reinforce the notion that we -- with every ounce of God's holiness planted inside of us--we decide what the year will be. Will we continue to do what we have always done or will we begin to consider our choices differently? Will we be content with pursuing the achievements and honors that our society tells us to value or will we discover the struggles of the 21st century that demand our attention? Will we labor for space or savor our time? In the words of the poet Mary Oliver: Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver’s words resonate, on this day that we reflect on the brevity of our lives, and on our ability to change them.
The American Jewish poet Stanley Kunitz reminds us about the ever-present possibility of teshuvah-turning…of change…with these words, from his poem “The Layers:”
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
We are not done with our changes either. The gates of heaven remain open, and through them God is willing us on…cheering us on…to have the strength and the courage to make different choices about how we might live in the year ahead. Choices that affirm life, and all of the potential we carry to live more fully.
The Holocaust survivor, therapist, and author, Victor Frankl, reminds us that we live most fully when we live less self-centered lives. He wrote:
"The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is.”
That is our prayer for 5776: Let us give of ourselves to others…in service, and in love…that we might become the people we were meant to be.