Choose life. I have to admit, this is one of my favorite phrases in the whole torah. Choose life so that you and your seed may live. Who in their right minds wouldn’t want to choose life? Since this is not a verse about suicide prevention or martyrdom, what it is really trying to teach us?
These are also the verses we read on Yom Kippur morning, our day of atonement, trying to make ourselves at-one with ourselves and God. As we face our shortcomings, the reminder that we are being urged to choose life is powerful.
So how do we do it? How do we choose life?
Rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski, in his book Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can be, offered ten commandments or steps to achieving spiritual happiness. And last year, the New York Times (March 12, 2014) offered a list of qualities that comprise wisdom, and I was impressed with how many of them overlap, and how many of them have to do with choosing life, right up to the last breath.
To some extent, it can be boiled down to what Victor Frankl wrote in his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning. “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So here is my short list of ways to choose life:
1. Cultivate enjoyable spiritual experiences.
The Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, the smaller, less well known version of the collection of wisdom of our sages, asks a question about choosing life: one of the rabbis suggests that when we die, we will be asked whether we tasted from all the legitimate pleasures of this world we live in.
19th century German Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch reworked this question: he imagined God asking us, “Have you SEEN My Alps?” or in our case, “Have you SEEN My Sonoma Coast?” Have you really seen the beauties of this world we live in? Have you, like Moses standing before the burning bush, taken the time to absorb how beautiful the crepe myrtles are in bloom, or the incredible full moon this week, or the difference between a red shoulder and a red tail hawk? Have you stepped off the whirlwind of your life, let the beauty wash over you — and given thanks for the opportunity to enjoy these pleasures? This is choosing life with your senses, with your soul, with your ability to experience radical amazement.
2. Become aware of our shortcomings and decide we want to become a better person. Remember the choice is ours.
A story about the 18th century Chassidic master Reb Zusya that most speaks to choosing life: One night he woke up from a dream, scared and worried. His students asked him what the trouble was. He told them he had just appeared before the heavenly court. No they did not ask him if he had seen the Alps. And they didn’t ask him why he had not been more like Moses, or even more like Joshua. They asked him why he had not been more like Zusya. And that was what scared him.
Professor Ursula Staudlinger at Columbia describes five components of wisdom: 1) self-insight; 2) the ability to demonstrate personal growth; 3) self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; 4) understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and finally, 5) an awareness of life’s ambiguities.
That ability to know ourselves, see the good and the less good, our own mishegoss, our own particular craziness, that causes us pain, suffering, inability to have good relationships or injure the ones we love, or obscure our opportunities for emotional success—that’s a path to wisdom and to happiness.
Remember that the choice is yours, hard though that is to imagine. These verses remind us it’s up to us to decide who we want to be.
3. Realize that change is a slow process, but be willing to persist, addressing each issue, one by one.
How many of us get to this time of reflection and think – YET AGAIN, I’d like to be more patient with my children, my spouse, my friends. I’d like to say I love you more often. I’d like to handle my anger better. I’d like to treat my body better, do those exercises, no matter how much they hurt. We may realize we want to change, we may know it’s our choice, but it’s still going to take time.
I know many of you have already come to this, you’ve learned to accept and enjoy where you are, but there might still be a few areas still to smoothe out.
It’s never too late. A dear friend was a life long smoker; so much so that I realized that when I went to visit her, I had to wear wash and wear clothes because the cigarette smell would permeate my clothes. She had a stroke when she was 83. The doctors told her that she had to give up smoking. When I asked her, a year later, how that was going, she told me, had she known it would be this easy, she would have done it years ago. She chose life.
4. Related to this, work to keep setbacks from discouraging us. Avoid things that are soul-killing.
Choosing life is not just about blessing the good. Sometimes, the Talmud teaches us, it is about blessing even the bad things that befall us.
All of us in this room are facing challenges each day, something works a little less well than before. I’m struggling with bursitis and arthritis in my hip, and my balance has gone to pieces… And I’ve discovered through physical therapy for my hip that it’s helping my balance! I’ve had to learn to adjust to new limitations, both physically and in terms of my memory… Anyone else have those challenges?
A story: A man who once came to the holy Maggid of Mezeritch and bemoaned that he was having great trouble applying the Talmudic saying that “A person is supposed to bless God for the bad just as one blesses God for the good”. The Maggid told him to go find Reb Zusya—yes, that same Reb Zusya—and ask him. The man did so and Zusya received him warmly and invited him into his home. When the guest came in, he saw how poor Reb Zusya’s family was: there was almost nothing to eat, they were beset with afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless Reb Zusya was happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished at this picture. He said: “I went to the Holy Maggid to ask him how is it possible to bless God for the bad the same way as we bless Ribono Shel Olam for the good, and the Maggid told me only you can help me in this matter.” Reb Zusya replied: “This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did our holy Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.” Even in the face of obvious affliction and trial, he was cheerful and kind, because he did not experience his life as affliction.
Just yesterday, I visited a patient who had had lymphoma in his 20’s, 50 years ago, whose radiation treatment (which worked apparently) left his interal organs scarred and problematic since then. But he has chosen to be happy nonetheless, making the most of the time he was given, and acknowledging that he had been going down a bad path of squandering his life in reckless pursuits. As a result, he felt that getting sick was actually a blessing in disguise. He told me that, since none of us gets out of here alive, the choice we have is to choose to be happy.
Learning to accept our strengths and challenges—to bless both the good and the bad, being authentic in who we are, being comfortable in our own skin—these are life affirming, life choosing perspectives. For many of us, learning to accept the reality of our lives with equanimity—even happiness—is another road to wisdom: the reality of our aging, the truth of how it affects our memory, our appearance, our daily pain level. If we can accept each “new normal”, look at the changes and see how to make the necessary adjustments, then wisdom is ours.
5. Give serious consideration to the relative importance of things.
Do we spend time and emotional energy on the traffic we’re stuck in, or the inconveniences that make up part of our daily lives, or do we focus on the important things?
Sometimes, at our house, we ask each other (because it’s always the OTHER person who notices) whether whatever is frustrating is really worth this much anguish. And pretty regularly, each of us will respond, No, not really.
But in addition to being able to control our level of frustration at the little things, are we also paying attention to the world around us? Here at beautiful Spring Lake Village, in beautiful Sonoma County, we can forget about the challenges in the world; we can feel like it’s someone else’s job now. And maybe that’s just being realistic. But we can still pay attention to where we buy things: are we buying chocolate picked by child slaves or by people paid a fair wage? (Did you know that’s a thing?) Are we making our contributions to feed the hungry? Are we balancing doing these tasks God expects of us against tasting of all the legitimate pleasures of the world?
6. Laugh more!
Twerski tells the story of a doctor who injected a muscle-paralyzing chemical into the muscles of the lower forehead that made it impossible to frown. He reported great success in relieving depression this way. Apparently, just the muscular activity of a frown can depress a person! On the other hand, laughing, good deep belly laughs, are also good for our health: the Mayo Clinic states that a rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling. They claim that on a long term basis, those of us who laugh more have strengthened immune systems, pain relief, and increased personal satisfaction. So make up a list of ways to increase your laughter, from subscribing to joke lists, or watching more Charlie Chaplin and Marx Brothers or Adam Sandler movies—or whatever works for you. But do make up the list. Let’s try that now….
7. Finally, realize that there is never an end to spiritual growth.
Since none of us is perfect, there is always room to refine our character. Every religion or spiritual practice I know of has practices suited toward this goal. It might be meditating—how many of you meditate? Or journaling—how many of you? Or reading and discussing and challenging yourself to continue to grow…
One of my teachers, Reb Mel Gottlieb, taught our seminary that any way is a way if you make it a way. If you have a technique that helps you to remember, to be conscious, to be aware, to think before you act, and it’s working for you, then more power to you, and I pray that you keep using it. If you have a technique that is successful when you use it, but… you don’t always remember to use it… spend some time today thinking about what the barriers are. And doing something about it.
May we all be able to use what Frankl called our final freedom, the freedom to choose our attitude, and may we be able to choose happiness and wisdom.
May you be happy, may you find meaning and may you be wise.