Many years ago, long before I became a rabbi, I was invited to High Holy Days services at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) in Los Angeles. As I walked into the sanctuary on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I remember being moved – struck, really – in a way I had never experienced at a shul before.
In many ways, the scene was exactly what you’d expect: several hundred people packed into an overly air-conditioned sanctuary schmoozing with old friends and paging through their machzorim. But BCC was unique. Founded in 1972, it was the world’s first synagogue by and for LGBTQ+ Jews and their allies.
As I looked for a seat, I took in the environment – the exquisite bimah cover referencing this week’s Torah portion exhorting us to “Choose Life!,” the choir singing a rendition of “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent,” and the rabbi inviting us to remove our shoes because we were – like Moses at the burning bush – on holy ground.
A wave of emotion came over me. For the first time ever, my love of Judaism and who I was as a person weren’t in conflict, and I couldn’t keep the tears from streaming.
Fortunately, the world has changed a lot since that Rosh Hashanah decades ago. But I can’t read Parashat Nitzavim without being transported back to that experience at BCC. The parashah begins with a sense of inclusivity and community that was so evident that day: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp from woodchopper to water drawer – to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God. (Deut. 30:9-11)
Everyone was a part of the covenant and the community. Every Jew, from community leader to custodian, was an integral co-signer of this covenant with God and had an important role to play in the community. Even the strangers – those non-Jews who had aligned and associated themselves with the Jewish people – were an important part of the covenantal whole.
In our very fractured and fragmented time, when even the Jewish people are siloed by denominations and politics, I find these opening verses of Parashat Nitzavim to be a hopeful reminder of what is possible.
But for me, the most intriguing part of the portion comes at the end, when we are exhorted to choose life: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live.” (Deut. 30:19)
But what does it mean to choose life? The peshat, or surface meaning, is made clear in the next verse. We choose life by loving God, following God’s commands and holding fast to God. Through our righteous connection to the divine, we choose life.
Seems simple, no?
If we stay at the peshat level, we have a path for choosing a life that is simple but, unfortunately, not entirely helpful for navigating life in our modern age. But our tradition rarely stays at the surface, and many commentators have fleshed out what it truly means to choose life.
In tractate Kiddushin of the Talmud, we learn that in addition to a righteous connection to God, a person must do two things to choose life: seek peace and pursue kindness. To “merit life, prosperity, and honor,” one must live with a dedication to peace and kindness.
What a powerful proposition! Imagine what our world would look like, would feel like, if our interactions with others were based on the belief that our own life, our own humanity, required that we seek peace and pursue kindness.
In Tractate Berakhot, we find another layer of what it is to choose life. In this case, the rabbis discuss what can obstruct or shorten life: “Three things may cause to shorten a man’s days and years: refusing to read the Torah when offered to him, refusing to recite Kiddush and leading a dominating life.”
Reading Torah and reciting Kiddush are consistent with the peshat of our portion, but what do the rabbis mean by “leading a dominating life?” They use Joseph and how he treated his brothers to illustrate this concept of domination.
Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, rose to be the second in command in Egypt. By the time he re-encounters his brothers, who are fleeing a famine, he is rich and powerful … and vindictive. He uses his power and the fact that his brothers don’t recognize him to terrorize them. He frames them for a theft they didn’t commit, locks one of them up, and has them all fearing for their lives.
Some of us might think that, after selling Joseph into slavery, his brothers deserved whatever treatment they got. But our Talmudic sages see it differently. For them, “Joseph died before his brothers because he dominated them.” For the rabbis, using your power to dominate, terrorize or repress those who are less powerful is the opposite of choosing life.
Finally, medieval commentators Ibn Ezra and Rashi round out for us what it means to choose life. Ibn Ezra’s cryptic comment is in response to “Choose life – that you and your offspring would live.” He explains that this means to live physically or in memory, and adds that “scripture explains that life is to love.”
Rashi continues with this image of love with a parent/child analogy. He writes, “It is like a man who says to his son, ‘choose for yourself a good portion of my real estate’ and sets him in the best portion, saying to him ‘Choose this!’ ” Just as a loving parent wants the best for their child, so too God wants us to make such choices.
As our sources suggest, choosing life is about much more than just staying alive. It’s even more than simply loving God and performing mitzvot. Choosing life requires choosing to live a life founded on certain values – peace and kindness, eschewing domination, and love.
This fleshed-out definition of choosing life can be very helpful in navigating our modern age. We are presented with choices every day that fall under this umbrella of choosing life:
Do I partake in toxic gossip at work? Choose life!
Do I beat up my little brother because I’m angry? Choose life!
Do I approach others from love or indifference? Choose life so you can truly live!
The choice is ours.
Shanah tovah umetukah! May this be a truly good and truly sweet year.
RABBI GAVI RUIT was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles and did post-ordination graduate work in Medieval & Modern Jewish Thought at HUC-Cincinnati. Her approach to the rabbinate is both scholarly and deeply spiritual. She teaches adult ed classes that are dedicated to helping progressive Jews bridge any gaps in Jewish education so they can plumb the depths of our vibrant tradition. Upcoming Gesher Learning Community classes can be found at ravgavi.com.