What do you choose…death or life?
I know that I’m stating the obvious, but when you want to know what someone said, you go to the source. In this case, the best way to know what God wants from us is to “read” what the Torah says, not what others say it says. Of course, it’s harder when we don’t speak the language of the Torah which is Hebrew, but we can discover within its pages enough in our own language to know what we need to do. Everyone has their opinion – scholars, rabbis, pastors, and many learned people but the important thing to remember is that the Bore Olam spoke to a simple people, at that time, who were not highly educated; they had no PhDs; they had been slaves. Let’s not be afraid that we won’t understand what the Torah is teaching us because we’re not as educated as modern scholars or highly esteemed theologians, but let’s just take the time to read what it says and then step back to be able to see the bigger picture. It’s not a complicated message. It says in Parashat Nitzavim: “For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it down to us, so that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the Word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, so that you may do it.”
When I read the first two verses of Nitzavim, I felt like Moshe was speaking directly to me. Here’s what he said: “You stand this day all of you before the LORD your God; the captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your foreigner who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; so that you should enter into covenant with the LORD your God, and into his oath, which the LORD your God makes with you this day. And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; But with him who stands here with us this day before the LORD our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day;”That’s you and me! Moshe wants us to enter the Covenant with The Creator, from the greatest among us to the least, the Israelite, and the non-Israelite. It made me stand up and take his words very seriously.
Moshe warned us once again about what would happen to us if we followed false gods and refused to acknowledge that the God of Israel was, is and always will be the only God, the Creator of all things. If we look around the world, these warnings are coming to pass. There are no excuses except for our stubborn pride. I remember hearing in churches that the “law” or the Torah was impossible to keep. That’s in direct opposition to what is written here. It’s no wonder that the Torah has been such a threat down through the ages and needed to be burned, eliminated, or invalidated. Yeshua’s main purpose was to bring the Torah back to us and to make it universal. What kind of God would the Creator be if He told us to be obedient to something that was impossible to obey and then would punish us when we weren’t? Our Creator lowered or restrained His power and might when He gave us the gift of free will. He wants us to choose to come to Him, to know that He only has our best interest at heart, and He wants us to love and trust Him. That cannot be enforced.
But we could say, “how can we trust Him in these hard times?” We’ve been through hard times before; that’s what the Torah shows us and how God has always brought us through. Hard times awaken a spirit within us that has become dull and complacent. Hard times take us out of our comfort zones and into a place where we are forced to make difficult choices. That leads us to these verses in this parashah. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command you this day to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments (Mitzvot) and His statutes (Chukkim) and his judgments (Mishpatim), that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God shall bless you in the land which you are entering to possess.” This is a way of pointing us to His Ten Commandments which are divided up into the Mitzvot (the first three – directed toward God), the Chukkim (the fourth and fifth – directed toward ourselves) and the Mishpatim (the last five – directed toward our neighbor).
Moshe warned us: “But if your heart turns away, so that you will not hear, (that’s stubborn pride) but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I announce to you this day, that you shall surely die (he means spiritually), and that you shall not prolong your days upon the land, to which you are going over the Jordan, to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you, life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed may live. That you may love the LORD your God, and that you may obey his voice, and that you may cleave to him; for He is your life, and the length of your days; that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them.”
To choose death doesn’t mean that we sit around contemplating suicide all day. It has to do with our behavior. Our decisions can lead to life or death of the soul. There are so many examples of that today; where do we begin? Here’s a couple; another hurricane just hit Haiti and Louisiana. I heard one commentator say that Haiti is still recovering from the storm that hit 11 years ago. I remember how much money was poured in to help the people. Where did it go? That kind of corruption is choosing death.
Here’s another example: There are companies today that make exorbitant amounts of money, but they cause collateral damage. I won’t even mention the pharmaceutical companies since that’s an obvious one. But all over the western world, small businesses have been closing, even before the pandemic, because large chains with tremendous purchasing power have taken over the markets. They can gouge the manufacturers’ cost price because of their size making it impossible for the small “ma and pa store” to compete, so they are forced to close. These large chains that buy from overseas use women and children as cheap labor which can never be matched in this country. We can’t blame anyone because we did it to ourselves. We want the dollar store prices but there is a price to pay at every level. When I was a kid, everyone could work. Everyone had a sense of self-respect because they could put food on their tables even if it came from pumping gas or wearing gloves and a uniform while pushing the button of a department elevator while greeting the shopper. Today technology has gotten out of hand causing people to be put out of work because of robotics. We have totally lost the idea to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
It’s good that this portion is read before Yom Teruah. That’s when the shofar shall sound to get us to focus our attention upon God and our inner being, asking Him to search our hearts. It is written in this parashah that if we turn back to Him “ … the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, so that you may live.” This circumcision of the heart is a piercing through of our thought processes. I take our rabbi’s favorite Psalm 139 very seriously and really ask God to search my heart. Last Saturday night, I felt as if I was in a movie theatre watching the events of my life pass before my eyes. I asked God “why do I have to look at these things again?”. Then I realized that this time I was able to see them from a higher and mature perspective on the spiral of life…not to blame myself or anyone, not to put guilt on myself or others but to see that God continues the process of circumcision…opening my heart and shifting my paradigms, little by little. It’s a process. That’s why in this parashah He also tells us… “For you know how we have lived in the land of Egypt;” We all have our Egypt within us, and it takes time for Egypt to leave us. We just need to be willing. We take the first step and God steps in to help us.
Life is not a picnic even though it’s a gift and can be so joyful. It’s a series of challenges, testing our metal which is put through the fire for purification. Let’s not complain when we are tested; for it’s in those moments that we can see His Glory. No one likes to suffer, but every time we break a commandment written in stone that’s exactly what we’re choosing to do…we are choosing death. Ranebi’s life’s work was to teach us how to apply the Torah to our lives and we continue to hold each other accountable for that in this community. It’s not enough to listen, to take notes and say “yeah I know that”; we need to live them out in the small things that we do every day and when we fail, we need to come back, to do teshuva and start again.
What do you choose…death or life? It’s not about what we say…God said it all…it’s about what we do and the intention of our hearts. When Moshe told us not to add or take anything from God’s Word, and we choose obedience over tradition, we are choosing life. When we honor the Shabbat and our parents, we are choosing life. When we give someone our word and we keep it, we are choosing life. When Moshe told us to bring in the first fruits of our labor and we put God first; we are choosing life. When we refuse to gossip about someone, we are choosing life. Next week when the shofar sounds, the eyes and ears of heaven will be even more fully attentive to our prayers; let’s spend time listening to that inner voice telling us where we need to do better and then, let’s do better. Our God is the God of beginning again; there is no other.