The Choice of LIfe Over Death
"See I have placed before you life and good, and death and evil(1) ... I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you and your offspring will live." (2)
The Torah tells us that God has given us a clear choice, the ability to choose life and good, or death and evil, and it is this choice that is the foundation of our capacity to serve God effectively. However, there seems to be a difficulty with the choice outlined in the verse; the Torah says that there are two pairs of choices, one between good and evil, and one between life and death. In giving us these options, it is evident that we have the ability and inclination to choose either direction. With regard to good and evil this dichotomy is easily understood; a person will find himself in many situations in life where there will be a strong temptation for him to choose what the Torah defines as 'evil', because at times the wrong choice seems to be the one that will provide happiness and satisfaction. Thus, the Torah tells us that we are constantly faced with a free will battle to choose good or evil.
What is far more difficult to understand is that the Torah sees that there is a difficult 'choice' to be made between life and death, implying that a person has a realistic inclination to choose death over life. Surely, no one will ever find it difficult to choose life over death, there is no temptation to choose death! Accordingly, why is the choice between life and death such a difficult one to make?
Rav Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, explains that when the Torah talks about 'death' it does not simply mean the state of not being alive. The Torah is warning us against what death represents. In order to understand what death means we need to develop our understanding of its opposite; 'life'. When the Torah talks about life it does not merely mean breathing, rather life is the process of growing in one's Divine Service and working on one's character.
Being alive means directly facing the challenges that life presents and using them to become a bigger person. Accordingly, choosing 'death' can mean avoiding dealing with those challenges and opting to escape the difficult opportunities that one faces throughout his life. Death is the choice of comfort over effort, of an easy life over a life full of challenge and growth. With this understanding it is easy to comprehend how choosing 'life' over 'death' constitutes a very difficult choice.
It is important to note that choosing death is not limited to failure to observe the mitzvot. A person can observe the Torah and simultaneously choose 'death'; if he is not striving to improve himself, and not fighting his yetzer hara, (negative inclination) then he is choosing the comfortable option that is akin to a form of 'death'. What is frightening is that a person may not be completely aware that he is making this choice and can live his life on 'cruise control'. If he never really pushes himself to further develop his relationship with God, to pray with more intent, to be a better husband or father and so on, then he is choosing the comfortable option.
On a slightly deeper level, the choice between comfort and challenge is, in fact the choice between associating with one's body or soul. Life is a constant struggle between these two contradictory forces that pull us in opposite directions. The body wants to return to the ground from where it came; this manifests itself in a desire to lie down, rest, and experience enjoyable and 'comfortable' pleasures. In contrast, the soul wants to return to the Heavens from where it originated. This pull is represented by a desire to expand and grow. Thus, each person is constantly faced with these conflicting forces pulling him in opposite directions. The Torah in this week's Torah Portion tells him that in order to succeed in his life purpose he must choose life.
This lesson is particularly apt as we approach Rosh Hashanah. On these Holy days we are not only judged for our performance of specific mitzvot, we also face a Din on who we are as a whole - what are our life goals, what is important to us? The choice between living an essentially comfortable life (even if it is done in a 'religious' way) and striving to reach one's potential is an essential element of Rosh Hashanah - it defines a great deal about what is important to us.
1. Nitzavim, 30:15.
2. Ibid., 30:19.