Choosing in a Time of Uncertainty | Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis | Sha’arei Shalom, Massachusetts, USA

We approach 5781 after a summer (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) which has been different, to say the least. Few summer camps were operating, most people adjusted their summer travel plans to account for the reality swirling about us, and many of us just stayed close to home. Six months into our “now normal” of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, we now prepare to welcome our Jewish New Year in unusual and unsettling ways at a time of uncertainty.

In the opening of the first of our double Torah portions we read, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which your God is concluding with you this day . . . I make this covenant . . . not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”  (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)   I never fail to feel the drama in this portion as it places us alongside our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Yet, this year most of us will not be standing alongside the members of our communities. Many of us will be sitting in front of screens as we create virtual sanctuaries in which to welcome our New Year. No less than would be true were we together in person, filling our sanctuaries with song and prayer, we desperately hope for a year filled with blessing, health and peace.

Beyond the drama of visualizing ourselves as standing together amidst all the generations of our people to enter the brit/covenant, I have long been drawn to the awesome power of Deuteronomy 30:19 –

הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

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—

Living in the age of COVID-19, we are keenly aware of the presence and power of life and death, blessing and curse. Since early March we have been faced with choices daily, some of which carry the power to cause dramatic and, in some cases, tragic consequences.

In his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, writes “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”[1] Frankl’s teaching about the ability to choose how we approach the challenges of our lives is all the more powerful when one considers the context in which he formed this notion. Viktor Frankl was a prisoner, and ultimately a survivor of numerous concentration camps. Writing about life in the darkness of the camps, he writes, “There were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity.”[2]
I think about Deuteronomy 30:19, and the power of Viktor Frankl’s words, and I am reminded of the teachings of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, one of the leading thinkers of the Mussar movement and his teachings on Nekudat HaBechirah – the “choice point.” Commenting on Deuteronomy 30:19, Rav Dessler writes, “Life and death: comprise all that a person is ‘given’ – all the facets of a person’s character, his inborn traits and tendencies, his upbringing and environment; all those factors which determine what he calls, ‘life,’ what presents itself to him as ‘good’ and ‘true’; and equally what he calls ‘death,’ ‘evil’ and ‘falsehood.’ All these things ‘I have put before you,’ literally: ‘I have given before you,’ these are the ‘givens’ of the human situation; they exist independently of any action on our part, like all the other features of our environment. But – ‘you shall choose life.’ ‘Choosing life,’ choosing truth and reality, is something which only the human being himself can do, and which he does without being affected by any outside factor whatsoever.”[3]
In the study and practice of Mussar, the Choice Point is the crossroads at which an individual, based on his or her study and practices choose the path they will follow in respect to a specific middah/soul-trait,[4] such as humility, gratitude, patience, honor, and many more middot. I find it6 useful, especially in our challenging time, and with the coming of our Yamim Noraim to read Deuteronomy 30:19 with both Rav Dessler and Viktor Frankl in mind. We stand on the threshold of a new Year, even as we stand at the Mountain with the generations of Israel to enter the brit. The attitude with which we approach this awesome moment, and the choices which God lays before us, and which are ours to make, will impact the path ahead. At a time of so many tangible and dangerous challenges to our health and livelihood, to our elders, our families and our neighbors, it is incumbent upon us to hear this week’s Torah portion, and prepare to enter 5781 mindful of the awesome power and responsibility of the choices we have and the choices we make as we seek a fresh new page in the Book of Life, and the new normal which will define our lives and our world when we emerge from this critical stage of facing a worldwide pandemic that knows no distinction, no boundaries, and threatens us all.  May our choices be for good, blessing and life!
Shabbat shalom and Shanah tovah!

[1] Viktor Frankl (1905-97), Man’s Search for Meaning, page 65 – published by Beacon Press
[2] Ibid
[3] Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) – Michtav Mey-Eliyahu, volume 1, page 144; also available in English as Strive for Truth, volume 2, page 56.
[4] For more on Middot and Mussar, see Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis – published by Penguin/Random House, 2008



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).