This week has begun a new year for us, we are now observing Aseret Yemei Teshuvah – the 10 days of Teshuvah – and the Torah teaches us to remember the lesson of life. God commands us to “choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) So what exactly is the nature of this choice?
People often think that free will is a choice between good and evil. When you think about it, though, no one makes decisions that way. Even the most contemptible person does not wake up in the morning and say, “Let me see what evil I can do today.” Such people are as much deranged as they are evil. We human beings mostly choose to do good. The problem is that often we rationalize what “good” really is, and we end up doing bad.
Exactly what are we choosing? We are choosing between that which we know to make sense and that which we know to be more comfortable. “I know I should apologize, but it’s much easier not to. I know I shouldn’t talk badly about someone, but it’s so tempting to do so. I know that I should spend some time with my wife after a long hard day at work, but I’d much rather put my feet up and watch TV.” In each case, the former choice will bring one a more long-term sense of fulfillment. The latter choice is more comfortable, but in the long term, it will leave one feeling empty.
In the context of this Shabbat of Shuvah (of return) and the time of year, we have to ask ourselves why God was telling B’nai Yisrael what had to be obvious. The answer I can come up with is that, what God was trying to say, was probably not that obvious. I say this because nobody had ever witnessed anything like that before. God was, after all, talking about a moment when His covenant with B’nai Yisrael was being reintroduced, reinforced and redefined. It was a time when B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, was becoming Am Yisrael, the people Israel, by way of being given the greatest gift, the Torah at Sinai.
What we should not miss is that this was such a transformational moment that God wanted to make sure that all of Am Yisrael, both then, today and tomorrow, L’dor v’dor, would understand that He will forever stand by this covenant. More importantly, by highlighting His presence to everyone, God is telling all of us that this covenant, this choice is not only for the leaders, the officials, the priests, the prophets, the kings, the rabbis, the cantors, other Jewish professionals or even synagogue board members; this covenant, this choice is for all of us.
I truly believe that God wants all of Am Yisrael, both then and now, to understand that this choice, this covenant is being given anew to every one of us every day. It is being given anew to the chieftains, “the woodcutters and water carriers,” even the “strangers” who choose to witness this covenant and support it.
If we learn anything from God’s message today, from now until the long Shofar blast at Yom Kippur’s end, anyone who serves as a rabbi or a cantor or a Jewish leader, must try to blend minds and hearts with the community in order to properly connect the dots between them and our God. The choice is simple. Choose life, choose the covenant.
Rabbis, cantors and other Jewish leaders should all know that there are others like them standing in pulpits throughout the world, serving countless Jewish people who are packed into many different congregations: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox and other types and styles. Even though all Jews want to come together at this time of year in solidarity and unity, the rabbis and cantors and other Jewish Leaders know that the notion of a unified Jewish People will always be elusive unless we choose God, and ultimately we choose life!
This year, this rabbi, will add a personal prayer that all Jews everywhere will learn to stand together as did those amazingly brave souls at Sinai who were searching out the bonds and commitments that can and must link us all one to another. I will pray that, despite all of the profound differences that exist between us, somehow we will recapture that amazing sense of wholeness and oneness that the “Holy Day” demands so that all Jews can be “at-one-ment” with our God and with each other.
Remember what God said to us, the Jewish people: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God...” “Choose life.” Or, as I like to say – L’chayim Tovim Ul’Shalom, “for good and a joyous life, and especially for peace.” Choose life, choose Shalom, choose God!
From our house to yours, G’mar Hatimah Tovah, “May We All Be Sealed for a Good Year (in the Book of Life).”
RICHARD E. PERLMAN is rabbi of West Bay Community Jewish Center (WBCJC) in Rhode Island.