By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
On the first day of school, my youngest daughter ran into my room at 6:40 AM, fully dressed, teeth brushed and ready to start grade 2. After complimenting her on her choice of outfit and telling her how proud and impressed I was that she got ready all on her own so quickly, I suggested that her t-shirt – one of my favourites from her older sister – was a tad loose and the v-neck was hanging too low to be appropriate for school. I asked her to go put on a tank top underneath. In her very determined and articulate way, she explained to me that this t-shirt would not look nice with a tank top underneath, and if she put it on, she would not be as beautiful as her older sister. (Impossible, I answered). She then proceeded to review with me, in detail, the stipulations of the school dress code to prove that she was not in violation of any of them. Her shoulders were covered and the shirt was not cropped to reveal her tummy and, obviously, I was being completely unreasonable. No matter what calm, gentle explanation, rationalization or suggestion my (old and tired) brain could muster at this very early hour of the morning, she had a logical rebuttal. I could feel my smooth, stress-free, rush-free morning slipping away. I was not going to win this debate. So I presented her with her choices: she could go put on a tank top under her chosen t-shirt or she could choose a different t-shirt to wear. Discussion over. (I needed coffee).
In this week’s parashah of Nitzavim, as the Israelites stand before God to renew the covenant with Him as they enter the land of Israel, God too gives His people a choice. They can worship only God and follow all His commandments and God will protect them and establish them as a nation and give them the land of Israel. Or they will suffer destruction and curses. Like my daughter, we may not view this as a “real” choice, since we are not able to do exactly as we want – wearing immodest v-neck t-shirts without a tank top, for example. Rather, the Torah shows us that the choices we are given have parametres, and the consequences for choosing outside these parametres are severe. Nonetheless, we also always have the opportunity to make a different choice.
The Torah tells us that “Perhaps there is among you a man or woman or a family or a tribe whose heart turns away today from being with the Lord your God… And it will be that when he hears the words of this oath, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, ‘I will have peace, though I go as my heart sees it.’ The Torah describes someone who is not following God’s commandments, not making the right choices in his life, and then, even when he hears the provisions of the contract made between God and His people, isn’t worried. He is confident that he will not suffer any consequences for his (poor) choices. Regarding this arrogance, the Torah teaches, “God will not agree to forgive such a person.”
If we stopped reading here, we would come away from the text with the notion of God as One who punishes, who is satisfied once the appropriate consequences are dealt, and we could debate (along with my daughter) whether we are truly being presented with freedom of choice or whether we are being subjected to coercion, intimidation and bullying. Meaningfully, given that next week is Rosh Hashanah, the following section of text teaches that as soon as we recognize the mistakes we have made and change our ways, God is ready to accept our repentance and restore us to our former glory. The Torah demonstrates that God is, in fact, eager and waiting for us to make the right choices so that He can reward us and help and guide us to make even more right choices. “The Lord your God will remove the barriers from your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” And further on, God tells us, “I call the heavens and the earth today to bear witness against you: I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.”
Choose life so that you will live. The sceptic, the pessimist, even the child, will not understand this as a choice. They’ll get stuck on the literal implication that if you do not choose life, then you are “choosing” suffering and death – really more of a threat than a choice. However, with explicit descriptions of all the good things God can bestow, the Torah shows us how God will reward those who return to His ways, those who choose to obey His commandments, those who make different choices for their lives. From this we can appreciate that our relationship with God is a learning process, not an ultimatum.
Choosing life means living a life of quality and value. It means thinking about the consequences of our behaviours for ourselves and for our children. It means addressing the difficult decisions life throws our way, keeping our frustrations and sufferings in perspective and choosing how we express them. It means being flexible and trying new things. It means opening our hearts to new ideas and new experiences.
Our children learn that the holiday of Rosh Hashanah begins the period of judgement wherein God decides by the end of Yom Kippur whether or not to seal us in the Book of Life. I humbly suggest that while God is deciding, let us decide, for ourselves, to choose life. As we stand in synagogue and pray and as we enjoy our delicious meals with our families, let us choose, this year, to try something different, to enrich our Jewish experiences, or to learn something new.
From within our Akiva community, I know no one who chooses life – in all its various nuances – more than Jay Sokoloff. Signing your organ donation card or giving blood are also ways to “choose life.” I ask you to remember Jay’s Hebrew name – Yosef Yisrael ben Zelda – in your prayers this Shabbat and over the holidays.
Albus Dumbledore said, “It is our choices that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
I wish you and your families a Shana Tova u-Metuka, a year filled with good health and happiness.