Every day brings us an array of stuff that tries our patience. You buy something that needs to be assembled, and the instructions don’t make sense. You’re out on a golf course and you hit a straight drive; but when you get to where it ought to be lying, the ball is not there. You toss 16 socks into a clothes dryer and you get only 15 back.
And then, we all have special pet peeves.
Me, I really hate cliches. In fact, I avoid a cliché like I avoid the plague! And even though a theme of Yom Kippur’s traditional Torah reading for Reform Jews (which we will read tomorrow) features the words, “choose life,” I often get annoyed at this phrase.
Indeed, for many years I thought the charge to “choose life” was an unbearable cliché. Except for the severely depressed — of course a tragic phenomenon — who would not choose life?
It’s like when Margaret Fuller, the nineteenth century transcendentalist, declared, “I accept the universe.” To which Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle sardonically responded, “Gad, she’d better!”
“Choose life” strikes me as a watered down version of “keep passing the open windows”.
“Keep passing the open windows” is the phrase that comes from the John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, published in 1981. It is a catchphrase among the Berry family, the characters whose story is told in the novel. It is drawn from a story that the Berry parents tell their children, about a street performer called “The King of Mice.” He committed suicide in jumping from a window. “Keep passing the open windows” is the family’s way of saying to each other to carry on when the going gets tough.
But the Bible says, “Choose life” and not “Keep passing the open windows”. So we are back to a cliché!
For more than a hundred years Reform Jews have featured these words in our Yom Kippur morning service, reading from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 instead of from the traditional selection of Leviticus 16.
Presumably our Reform forebears were more interested in avoiding congregational attention focused on the scapegoat – featured in the traditional Yom Kippur reading from Leviticus 16 – than they were emphatically promoting the notion of choosing life. Early Reform rabbis felt that Jews were already well acquainted with being scapegoated and didn’t need any blatant reminders. Also the primitivism of the scapegoat clashed with their Age of Enlightenment sensibility.
I am also quite sure that they had no idea that the words “choose life” – when found on a car bumper sticker – would have a specific meaning concerning abortion issues.
But back to our cliché.
Fortunately, I do believe that an important message can be mined out of the phrase if we look a little more closely.
The context of this appeal, in Deuteronomy 30, is the need for each of us to decide what path in life to take, the blessed or the cursed, of life or of death. Life here is not the literal opting to not die (sorry, Hamlet) but the sum of all of our choices. The words are a general call to follow a good path.
Not many people are going to argue against this appeal, even if their life choices do not always reflect this advice. So once again, we seem to be dealing with a cliché.
But here is something important: the actual Hebrew, u-vaharta bahayim, doesn’t exactly translate as “choose life,” but rather “therefore, choose life.” Often over-looked, I am intrigued by this word “therefore”.
In general, Hebrew is a much more compact language than English. One Hebrew word might take three or more English words in order to provide an accurate rendering. The Hebrew letter “vav” – actually pronounced “u” at the beginning of the word “u-vaharta” — can be understood in this case as implying a logical conclusion to the argument. That is to say, “therefore”.
For instance, here is a translation from the 1917 edition of the Jewish Publication Society:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; [u-vaharta] therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”
Hebrew scholars connect the letter “vav” (rendered here as “u” in Hebrew for grammatical reasons far beyond my explaining tonight) with the image of a “hook”.
Hence, one might argue that the “vav” in our phrase is the “hook” that turns the cliché into an important message. In other words, this word “therefore” is important.
The implication is that God has made a case for choosing life beyond the oft-repeated parental phrase, “Because I said so.”
And the “therefore” is the key.
So what does this “therefore” reflect? What is the great argument that God makes for choosing life?
The answer is this: the “therefore” indicates the great power of each of us to make any choice we want.
In other words the point of choosing life is that we all have that choice. This is far from redundant and it is not merely a cliché.
It is in fact novel and extraordinary.
Hear this: Nothing is preordained.
There is no destiny, only choice.
This is the great outlook of Judaism whittled down to a deceptively simple sentence. A profoundly simple sentence.
It’s what God tells Cain when he complains that his sacrifice was not received with the right amount of respect. God says to him: you can sin or not, you can hold a grudge or not. It’s your choice.
What we may think of as predetermined actions, fate or destiny is purely an illusion. The reality is completely different: we have absolute free will.
All the time. Whether to love or hate or feel indifference. Whether to care or not care. To respond or not respond. Our physical bodies may operate without our consent — it’s called breathing — but morally and emotionally we are free agents.
The author Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked whether he believed in free will or predestination. “We have to believe in free will,” he replied. “We’ve got no choice.”
Yes, some of us are born with great opportunities and others come into the world imprisoned by poverty and even illness. I’m not addressing at this moment the great social, physical and material inequalities in this world, this city, or even this congregation.
I’m speaking about our own individual awareness of the choices before us. I’m arguing that our choices, what we can choose to do, are far greater than we might imagine.
We are not prisoners of fate. Nothing is decided in advance. Our choices are freely ours to make, and the consequences that follow are on our account as well.
We all know some people who live and die with bitter hearts, and it might seem cruel to say but let’s be honest: it’s a choice to live that way. In this one regard, we all have the power to decide how tragedy affects us. We can choose bitterness, that is our right. But it is not our fate.
After a crisis or disappointment we can look at what’s gone or we can look at what’s left. It’s a choice.
The takeaway from this understanding of u-vaharta bahayyim – “therefore, choose life” — is the dizzying reality of what it means to be completely free in our moral agency. In short, we don’t choose what people do to us but we do decide how we respond and how we treat others.
I’m not suggesting this is necessarily good news.
Actual free choice can be terrifying. Think this through with me: We are all equal in this matter, rich or poor; we are all given the same 168 hours a week. We are all presented with an avalanche of choices every second of every one of those 168 hours.
And I have to ask: More often than not do we choose the path of kindness over pettiness? Do we share our time and treasure with others? Do we better our minds and ennoble our hearts? Do we nurse grudges or make a new plan?
Be honest: who among us wants that kind of responsibility? Wouldn’t we rather question our moral agency? You know, let ourselves off the hook?
Understandably there are times when we want to be let off that hook. When we can shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s beyond my control.”
I get it. We are not given the same amount of opportunity and good luck. And life is not fair.
But this doesn’t negate the choices before us.
And Yom Kippur is not the time for turning away from the truth, even when it’s disturbing. Especially when it’s disturbing.
Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor who spent much of World War II in the concentration camps, wrote extensively on human choice and the meaning of life. He concluded that our freedom as humans is not freedom from conditions, but rather it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions. This is the choice we face. We cannot choose our past. But we can choose how we respond to that past. We can be victimized, of course, but we need not be victims.
To be fair, in recent years there are those in the science fields who argue that free will is only an illusion, that we are encumbered by our biology. Were this true it would make “choose life” even worse than a cliché. It would render it a cruel irrelevancy.
For instance, Sam Harris writes in his 2012 book, Free Will, that free will itself is an illusion, and he uses science and his own cognition to attempt to prove his thesis. Here is his conclusion:
It is not that free will is simply an illusion—our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality. Rather, we are mistaken about our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.
Sam Harris has been one of those writers who challenges belief in God (his book is dedicated to that late confirmed atheist, Christopher Hitchens) and now he appears to be challenging our belief in ourselves. His reasoning is clever, and maybe even entertaining, if at times confusing, but that does not mean I agree with him.
I choose – using that specific word – to believe in a world where there is free choice. (Ideally I also want to believe in a Deity who cares about the choices I make.) Therefore, the “therefore” in “therefore, choose life” to me means rejecting appeals to fatalism. It means expanding our awareness of the choices before us.
And it means, whether we like it or not, taking responsibility for our choices.
Consider the story of the rabbinical student who has left the study house and is hurrying home. A peasant on the way asks the student to help him with his spilled wares. He responds that he can’t. The peasant rebukes the student: “Don’t say you can’t. Say you won’t. You always have a choice.”
This tale is an appeal to stop lying to ourselves. Our actions are not predetermined or based on factors beyond our control. We are free moral agents, and that implies the great power within us.
As Marianne Williamson wrote (and Nelson Mandela cited in his 1994 inaugural address), “…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” When seen in this way, “therefore, choose life” ceases to become a cliché and instead can be regarded as a sobering realization. Our personal responsibility for who we are is far greater than we imagined.
God is saying to us in stark terms: I gave you life. I gave you free choice. Now choose wisely! Therefore, choose life!
Therefore, choose life!
You know, contrary to what I said before, sometimes choosing life can be quite literal. Consider this tale of Gisella Perl. She was seized by the Gestapo, along with her parents and husband, in March 1944. She came from Sighet, the same village as Elie Weisel’s hometown. She was taken to Auschwitz and, being a physician, was put to work under the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
Mengele performed savage medical experiments on prisoners, especially women and the disabled. He would tell pregnant women to report to him so that he could send them to another camp for better nutrition. Women would run to him and tell him, “I’m pregnant!” Dr. Perl soon discovered that these women were then taken to the research block and used as guinea pigs, after which mother and embryo would be thrown into the crematorium.
Gisella Perl decided to warn the women of the danger. She would abort every pregnancy she could in order to save the mothers’ lives. In addition to the abortions, she was one of five doctors at Auschwitz who were supposed to operate a hospital ward with no beds, bandages, drugs or instruments. She had to try and heal the many diseases brought on by torture, starvation, and filth. She had to treat broken bones and heads that had been cracked by vicious beatings. Her only medicine to offer was the spoken word. She would tell her patients that one day life would be good again.
When she was liberated, she wandered through Germany on foot, searching for her family. She quickly learned that her husband had been beaten to death just before liberation and her teenage son had died in a gas chamber. She herself now succumbed to grief and tried to kill herself with poison. Unsuccessful, she was taken to a convent in France to recuperate.
In 1947, Gisella came to the United States to speak to doctors of the horrors she saw. One day she met Eleanor Roosevelt and they had lunch together. The former first lady told her, “Stop torturing yourself; become a doctor again.” With the help of a local congressman, she opened an office in Manhattan and joined the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital. There she became an expert in treating fertility and delivered three thousand babies. In her seventies she moved to Jerusalem and donated her time to the gynecological clinic at Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, helping women to give birth.
Whenever she entered a delivery room, after she began to deliver babies again after the war, she would always first stop to utter her own special prayer: “God, you owe me a life, a living baby.”
Gisella Perl knew firsthand despair and fear. But she also was able to draw on a wellspring of hope and faith. She was a living embodiment of courage and the choice to choose life.
Therefore, choose life.
Therefore, meaning: we have the choice.
As we age, will we become bitter or better? Will we be victims or victors? Will we see the glass half-full or half-empty?
None of these choices is predetermined. We can always bear a grudge, but that too is a choice. A seductive one, yes, but nursing such grudges is often like gnawing on a bone. It might taste good for awhile but we gradually realize the bone we are gnawing on is our own bone. And it is not going to end well.
Is that the choice we want to make?
So herein lies our path. We make ourselves aware of the choices, we determine how we want to respond, and if we choose to live with integrity, we act accordingly.
It is precisely this profound simplicity at the core of the exhortation to choose life.
There’s an old Arab story of a spy who was captured and then sentenced to death by a general in the Persian army. This general had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and a big, black door next to the execution site. As the moment for execution drew near, the spy was brought to the Persian general, who asked the question, “What will it be: the firing squad or the big, black door?”
The spy hesitated for a long time. It was a difficult decision. He chose the firing squad.
Moments later shots rang out confirming his execution. The general turned to his aide and said, “They always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. Yet, we gave him a choice.”
The aide said, “What lies beyond the big door?”
“Freedom,” replied the general. “I’ve known only a
few brave enough to take it.”
My question tonight is this: When it comes to the courage it takes to greet the world with awareness of the choices before us, how brave are we?
Moving forward into the new year will we:
Choose to love — rather than hate.
Choose to smile — rather than frown.
Choose to build — rather than destroy.
Choose to persevere — rather than quit.
Choose to praise — rather than gossip.
Choose to heal — rather than wound.
Choose to give — rather than grasp.
Choose to act — rather than delay.
Choose to pray — rather than despair.
Choose to forgive — rather than curse.
And so I pray: May we choose to follow this appeal this day, every day, and for the rest of our lives.
U-vacharta bachayim – therefore, choose life. Amen.