This week’s Torah portion includes the well-known command from God to the Children of Israel:
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; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed. (Devarim 30:19)
I love these words. They are a simple and clear statement of purpose. They tell us that it begins with us. We must choose to take part, we must involve ourselves in this messy thing called life, we must act! So this week I intended to write about the concept of freedom of choice, and I had the beginnings of what I thought could be an interesting drash that examined the thoughts of the Lubavitcher Rebbe regarding what influences our choices. Then the telephone rang, and I heard the most heart-breaking news: the night before receiving some important examination results, the child of an old school friend had just taken their own life. When disease or adversity threaten our lives, we humans fight with such fortitude and tenacity. How could life have become so dreadful that this young person felt that the only way to deal with the pain was to make a permanent exit? How could they feel so alone and unheard? How could they choose death?
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people aged 15-24. Adolescence is challenging, and our youth feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. We are losing too many of them. They are not the only ones who feel unable to cope. From gargantuan storms to unstable leaders with access to nuclear warheads, the danger to life around the world is palpable. New political leadership has brought to the foreground profound divisions in our society. Daily life is full of stresses, and we often feel unable to find solutions to our problems. These are not 21st century issues. Throughout history we have struggled with the forces of nature, our enemies, and ourselves. Although we may not know what to do, the Torah does, if we choose to listen.
Last week the parasha commanded us to destroy Amalek. The Children of Israel failed to complete this task, and thus Amalek is still alive today. We may not be able to identify him as a particular person or group. However, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, an 18th century rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, believed that each time we worry about how God can let terrible things happen in the world, this is Amalek attacking our souls. We are required to wipe out the despair that we feel, this Amalekite poison, we must wipe it from our hearts so that we may serve God with joy, says the BeShT. That makes sense, but how may we follow his teaching?
This week, in the very next portion, God gives us an answer. God says, “Choose life!” Some of us have a sense of God’s presence in our lives, hear this message clearly, and are able to choose. For those of us not blessed in this way, what can we do? Parshat Nitzavim has an answer for us too. God tells us
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off … But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (Devarim 30:11,14)
These verses shine with a brilliance that brings tears to my eyes. Could it be that simple? Which word is in my mouth and in my heart? Which word has been with me since I was a child? What do I say when I lie down and when I rise up?
“Shema Yisrael.” Hear O Israel. Pay attention. Listen. For all of us who feel alone. For all who feel unheard. For the child of my friend, and all those we love who are feeling lost. And for ourselves. What if rather than trying to fill the void with words – what if we speak less and listen more? Let the Torah speak. Let God speak. Let us listen to each other, for as we pay attention to another person, we build a connection. As we learn how to hear, we will understand what it is to be heard. And then perhaps, b’chol l’va-vecha, u-v’chol naf-shecha, u-v’chol m’odecha, we will all be able to choose life so we may live.
About the Author
Ariel J Friedlander is a teacher and Liberal rabbi working in the UK and Italy.