“I call heaven and earth to witness to you this day – I place before you blessing and curse, life and death. Therefore choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
Is there anything more thrilling? We have the chance to choose – life or death, blessing or curse? It is entirely our choice every day.
Of course, this being the Torah, we’re not only talking about – or even primarily talking about – the physical life of the body so much as the spiritual life of the soul. Think about the phrase “choose life so that you may live.” How redundant a statement, unless we connect this with the Unetaneh Tokef – and the concept that the book of life itself is at least in part about spiritual life.
How many of us are living and breathing, but spiritually dead inside? Interested only in the material world, without a thought or a care about the life of our souls? Or lonely and isolated? Or troubled? Or don’t have the energy to even try any more?
So what is God asking of us when we choose life? Earlier in the same passage, in what is a beautiful piece of trope – lo bashamayim he, lamore, mi ya’aleh lanu hashamaymah v’yikakheha lanu? It is not in the heavens, so that we might say – who will go up to the heavens for us and bring it to us? No it is very close – it is in our hearts and in our mouths, so that we can do it.
Love Adonai, walk in in the ways of the Source of All Being, and keep the Eternal’s commandments, laws, and rules.
The big 10 commandments? All 613 mitzvot? with the additions to keep a fence around the torah? What? Sometimes, it’s very confusing.
I propose that it’s really quite simple, based on an earlier portion of Deuteronomy that also speaks of blessing and curses – in Ki Tavo we read that choosing a life that is mindful and close to the Divine is all about
1) our relationships with each other and with the Holy One;
2) taking care of the widow, orphan and stranger – the vulnerable;
3) honoring our parents and all seniors,
4) recognizing where we are and where we stand in the order of the universe, and
5) taking care of the responsibilities to our community.
Psalm 34 speaks directly about what it means to desire – or choose–life: “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. Shun evil, do good and seek peace and pursue it.”
It’s about responsibility: to God, to the world, to our community, our families and to fulfilling our own spiritual tasks. Rabbi Professor Tzvi Marx says in his book, Disability in Jewish Law: “Taking responsibility is not merely an option in taste or culture, but touches on the essence of being human…” It is not an option – it is our essence. Our essence.
For Jews, responsibility is like mother’s milk. It’s written into everything we are supposed to do. We don’t care what you think or believe about the Holy One, as long as you act like a mensch. It’s part of what makes us Jews a little different from other Americans: while we love the idea of rights, we focus on responsibilities: what we owe to each other; what we are supposed to do in this world. It’s part of why we bought into the American dream so easily and so many of our ancestors made their way from Eastern and Central Europe. The Preamble to the Constitution spoke of our Jewish heritage – a society is supposed to establish justice and promote the general welfare. We know that; that’s who we are.
But we’re also human and we stray from the ideal… And that’s why we’re here today. Rabbi Alan Lew z”l asks us to imagine as we sit down in this sanctuary that we hear names being called and assigned to one of the three books – the book of life for the completely righteous, the book of death for the completely evil and the book for most of us – neither completely good nor completely wicked. Just as the UT says that each page of our life story bears our own signature, so does Rabbi Lew ask us to imagine what would be on the video recording of our lives. Would we be proud of it? Probably no one would be entirely proud…
He tells the story of a rabbi who was invited to the house of the parents of the bride of a wedding he’d just officiated for the first viewing of the DVD of the wedding. As the video opens, the rabbi and cantor are seen standing alone under the chuppah, the wedding canopy, blissfully unaware that their microphones are live. They can be heard making fun of both families and how poorly they are adapting to their new roles as in-laws. Then the cantor makes a disparaging remark about the bride’s mother’s dress – he calls it a shmatte – a rag. Then the rabbi himself is heard making a profane comment about the groom’s uncle… Oy.
Are there moments on your life’s DVD that share some resemblance to this? Alas, there are on mine.
And what does this have to do with responsibility? I think many of us think we can get away with not living up to our responsibilities because no one’s watching… How many of us have kept the change when the grocery clerk or the restaurant waitress made a mistake? Or spoken ill of someone when we thought it wouldn’t get back to them? How many of us have excused our own behavior, and then wondered why relationships grew distant?
There is a story of the Chofetz Chayim, a 19th and 20th century Polish rebbe who had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world. When asked how he had achieved this success, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Start with ourselves. What are we supposed to do in this world? What is the question for which our life is the answer? What is the unique task that called us here? For some of you, it’s teaching preschool; for others, healing; for some it’s educating people about the environment; for others, it’s raising mensches. And fortunately, for several, it’s about making North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation a vibrant place. So many possibilities.
Even before we can help even our family – we need to change ourselves. Have we learned to balance our judgment with our compassion? Have we gotten a handle on our generosity? Our patience? Our own humility? Have we figured out how to balance those two notes the midrash says we each have in our pocket: the world was created for me in one pocket and I am nothing but dust and ashes in the other? Do we know when to pull out the right one? Have we learned to forgive – ourselves and others? Have we learned to express our anger in productive outlets? This is all about taking responsibility for our actions.
I’m still working on many of those issues. So are my friends. So are many of the people I work with. It’s the work of a lifetime, done every day, and especially today.
But are we doing it with the love and care we are meant to give? My teacher Rabbi Mordecai Finley says that love is about serving, improving the life of the person you love. Rather than “what’s in it for me” – what will that person give me so that I feel complete?– it’s about how can I help to make their spiritual life better? How can I ease their way? Does your wife or daughter feel desirable; does your husband or best friend feel appreciated? Are you supporting them in their dreams?
Do you choose your words carefully and well? When you speak of another group, or to people who disagree with you, can you maintain your ability to see them as humans, b’tzelem elohim, with the spark of God in them, and treat them as you would want to be treated? In this time in our history, civil discourse is so hard to find – we can barely remember how to be polite to people whose opinion opposes ours. And yet, unless we can, we are treating the image of God badly, very badly indeed.
As we approach the vidui again, our confession, notice again how many of the sins for which we ask forgiveness are sins of the mouth. Sins that we can control if we think, if we are mindful, before we speak.
One year, my mentor rabbi gave an eloquent sermon about lashon hara – this evil tongue. People were visibly moved. And yet, when I ran into a congregant in the parking lot less than an hour later, she confessed that – despite being touched by his words, she hadn’t even gotten out of the pew, let alone to the parking lot, before she spoke ill of someone. And she is a really good person. What can we do to be mindful when we speak?
This morning’s haftarah, the prophetic reading from Isaiah, involves the famous discussion of the fast God seeks from us: it’s not about hair shirts and starvation, but doing actions of social justice: let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, care for the homeless. Our fast today is not about the ritual and the correct form – those were understood as essential – but they had to be accompanied by kavvanah – by intention and focus… Our responsibilities extend beyond our families and this has translated into the way Jews have been at the forefront, at the head of and in the vanguard of every social justice issue since we left Egypt. You look at any movement for social justice, you will find fellow members of the tribe. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-human trafficking, anti-genocide, children’s issues.
Taking responsibility is not an option – it touches on our very essence as humans. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have a covenant with our community. We are required to care for the vulnerable and keep the flame of Jewish ideals and values burning. We have to teach them diligently – v’shinantam levanecha, and not only teach them, but live them.
As you know, Jews have historically taken communal steps whenever we’ve established a community:
- a chevra kedisha to bury the dead according to Jewish traditions and respect;
- Jewish hospitals.
- schools – the cheders and yeshivas of Europe, the Brandeis Hillels and Solomon Schechters of the States; the religious schools connected with shuls
- Jewish Free Loan Associations
- Jewish Family and Children’s Services to take care of families and seniors and immigrants.
And of course, we have established shuls.
The torah establishes several types of ways to participate in the support of the temple or the Jewish community:
- The building fund is supposed to be comprised of gifts accepted from every person whose heart so moves them.
- Operating expenses are supposed to be covered initially from a tax of a half shekel from every single person, rich or poor, beggar or billionaire, so that everyone recognizes that they have a stake in the holy community.
- There are taxes for the redemption of all sorts of other items, building a house, seeds for crops, and one’s animals, to name just a few.
These are considered more than a gift of the heart. Tax was not only NOT a dirty word, but a sacred obligation. Taxes are about paying our dues for membership in the community. Community brings us enormous gifts: significant research shows that people who are members of a community experience improved physical and mental health and longevity—because of social connections, caring for each other. We can all name other benefits: people to make a minyan at a shiva house, people to bring food when someone is sick, people to visit when you’re lonely. People with like interests to study or walk or play mah jongg together. People who share a common bond. A shared sense of purpose. Take a look around the room: do you share any of those things with the people around you? Could you imagine doing so?
I’m hoping the answer to those two questions is yes. And if so, I have some not very surprising news. Communities require commitment from their members.
Consider what North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation needs so that the Source of All Being can dwell in our midst and holy moments can happen, so that it can be the community that you want it to be.
Nothing here happens without the efforts of people devoting themselves and their hearts, souls and resources: the delicious pot lucks don’t happen without volunteers willing to bring food to grease the wheels of community. Planning can’t be done without your volunteer board of directors.
I’m sure Bob has a list of volunteer opportunities – sound engineer for sure – as well as Rose and Cookie for Sisterhood – that can help make the community more connected.
I myself am looking for people to form a monthly shabbos band. And study partners.
When you contemplate ways you can take responsibility—and choose the spiritual life—think about what that means here, right here. Dare I say – ask not only what North Tahoe can do for you, but what you can do for North Tahoe?
And so, as this day winds forward, during times of quiet reflection, consider what you can do – for yourself, for your family, for your community, for your shul. Offer to bring food for an oneg. Welcome a stranger and invite them to sit with you. And contribute your share of membership in the community. Make sure your family and friends know how you feel about them. Engage in your passions. Live the life of a mensch. Take responsibility for your tasks, answer the call that is truly your own. Choose life, that you and your children may live.