Nitzavim/Vayelech- Choosing Life

As Moshe’s Mishne Torah monologues really begin to wind down, our greatest leader pulls out all of the stops and gets super-dramatic in order to convince the Jewish People of the importance of making the correct decisions. He speaks about how easy it is to choose life (“לא בשמים הוא לאמר…”), then makes a final, passionate plea to them:

רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע
See that I have put before you the life and good, and the death and evil

Moshe’s plea is simple: “Every day, you will be faced with decisions- to choose life or death, good or evil. Make sure to choose good.”

What exactly does “choosing good” entail?

אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם, לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו; וְחָיִיתָ וְרָבִיתָ–וּבֵרַכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ
That which I commanded you, to love Hashem your Lord, to walk in His ways and keep His commandments, His statutes, and His ordinances; to live and multiply, and Hashem your Lord will bless you with the land which you will go to possess it.

וְאִם-יִפְנֶה לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִשְׁמָע; וְנִדַּחְתָּ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לֵאלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–וַעֲבַדְתָּם
But if your heart will turn away and you will not hear, but will be drawn away and worship other gods and serve them,

הִגַּדְתִּי לָכֶם הַיּוֹם, כִּי אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן: לֹא-תַאֲרִיכֻן יָמִים, עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹבֵר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, לָבוֹא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ
I declare to you today that you will surely be destroyed; you shall not prolong your days on the land, that you will cross into over the Jordan, to go there and inherit her. (דברים ל:טו-יח)

Choosing good and choosing life means living what we imagine to be the ideal Jewish lifestyle- loving Hashem, following in His ways, procreating the next generation, and, when Hashem gives us the Land of Israel to live there, personally going and inheriting it. If we fail to make the correct choices, then Moshe makes it clear that the stakes are very high. He continues in this theme by reiterating on his threat in the earlier admonition of Va’etchanan (which we typically read on Tisha B’Av, as a testament to the reality of these threats):

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ–הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ
I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.

לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ: כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ, וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ–לָשֶׁבֶת עַל-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב, לָתֵת לָהֶם
To love Hashem your Lord, to listen to His voice and cleave to Him, for this is your life and the length of your days, so that you may live in the land which Hashem swore to your forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to give to them. (שם יט-כ)

The repeating theme here is the black-and-white nature of the decision between blessing and curse, life and death, and the importance of choosing life. In the small span of these pesukim, Moshe, never one to parse words, repeats this theme no less than three times. But, human nature dictates self-preservation- of course we’ll choose life over death. Why does Moshe emphasize this point so much here?

In order to answer this, I ask you to please take a step back and forget about each of the aforementioned factors. Temporarily disassociate the specifics of this decision, and focus on choosing life or death. You may think that this is silly- how and why would anyone choose death over life?

The answer is that the decision does not always seem so simple, at least at the time. Jump back to the mid-Twentieth Century in Europe. Life for the Jews had been comfortable there for many decades, and our people felt very secure on the subcontinent. Living among enlightened nations, they lost any feeling of danger, and decided to try to integrate with their neighbors, leaving their Judaism behind. This false sense of security that they had been lulled into turned into their undoing, as they failed to see the danger until it was far too late. Six Million of our brethren died throughout the Shoah and most of them because of a sense of complacency at a time when others were on the move, running to the British Mandate to avoid the rising evil.

When we look back at this, and many of the other, more tragic, points of Jewish history, we can’t help but try to scream into the past at our brethren to wake up, and change their minds, to decide to leave (Nazi Europe/Spain/Europe/Persia/Egypt- insert favorite oppressor here) before it was too late, to choose life. But, as the idiom goes; hindsight is always 20-20, and as American writer and philosopher Robert Maynard Pirsig famously added all too quaintly: “[Hindsight] is good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”

Luckily for us, we have Moshe Rabeinu to tell us where we “ought to go”: “רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע- Behold, I’ve given before you the right answers.” When faced with the difficult decision of fight or flight, when trying to figure out what to do next for the safety and religious continuity of ourselves and our families, how should we make the decision for life, the one which our future descendants with their 20-20 hindsight can also categorically agree was for good?

By following the ideals that Moshe lays out in the pesukim– living a lifestyle of loving Hashem, following in His mitzvot, and, at points of history when the Land of Israel is accessible and open to our settlement, following the last, clearest, and most specific of Moshe’s commands: “לָשֶׁבֶת עַל-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב, לָתֵת לָהֶם,” to return to and live in the land that Hashem promised to our forefathers. Any deviation from this lifestyle, and Moshe makes it abundantly clear what the consequences are- choosing death equals death, and history has shown that Moshe’s warning of the destruction of the Jewish People, testified before the skies and earth, has been shown to be true all too many times. Moshe’s repeated warning of choosing life, choosing blessing and choosing good is not just a catchy moniker- it’s a warning of the difficulty of making tough decisions, when only in hindsight is it clear whether the choice was right or not, and a guideline to making the correct one.

As we prepare to enter the year 5776, it seems that the age-old choice between life and death is once again returning. Anti-Semitism in Europe, which has caused its dwindling Jewish population to dwindle faster, is making its way to the United States, and anyone who reads carefully between the lines of current events can tell that a storm is brewing. On the other hand, with assimilation at over two-thirds, and a cursory glance through some of America’s Modern Orthodox communities showing a significant drop in observance of tzni’ut, shemirat negiah, and religious culture, it’s clear that most of the Jews there are not at all watching for trouble, and would not be ready to leave their adopted culture, even when danger comes.

רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע

Now is the time to make a decision- to decide to rededicate ourselves to spiritual avodat Hashem, by re accepting crucial parts of the Torah that are being forgotten and neglected, by centering our existences and collective culture around loving Hashem, and by rededicating ourselves to physical avodat Hashem, by choosing Eretz Yisrael and moving away from this condemned country, jumping ship before it sinks. Now is the time to make the choice for life, before it’s too late. We can make the decision which generations to come will thank us for, or we can make the decision which will ensure that there are no generations to come- it’s all in our hands.

וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ

With Hashem’s help, we will all choose life, and merit the ge’ulah very very soon.