Sep. 28, 2009 / 10 Tishrei, 5770
© Linda Blachman
Last Rosh HaShanah our darshanit said that she would focus on silence during the coming year. I was captured by the idea of having a focus for the year and immediately knew the one I would take: “Choose Life.”
U’vcharta l’chaiim. That familiar, rarely questioned command that we read in parshat Netzavim weeks before Yom Kippur. There are our ancestors, standing on Mt. Nebo, at the threshold of entering the land, and, Moses, channeling God, exhorts them: I call heaven and earth to witness against this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live.
On Yom Kippur we stand together before the gates, scan the promised land of the next year, and pray to be chosen for life. We plead: Help us, save us, forgive us. We implore to be written into the Book of Life. So many of the liturgical prayers are in this passive voice. I’ll be good, God. I’ll do better next year, I promise! Choose me, my loved ones!
To be chosen for life, though, is to wish for another year’s survival, a choice that is essentially out of our hands. A little like sitting in an airplane 40,000 feet above ground and praying for God the cosmic pilot to deliver us to a safe landing. These prayers also invoke the magical, childlike “if, then” belief system: If we follow Torah, keep the commandments, adhere to halacha, do teshuvah, then God will choose and save us; we’ll get to live. Yet, since Job, we know it ain’t necessarily so.
So there’s considerable irony in u’varchata l’chaiim. We’re commanded, and yet free will is implied – we at least have the option of hearing and heeding the commandment. We’re commanded to choose, but we don’t get to choose a lot of the big stuff. God gives life and takes life when God chooses. Still, in between the mysteries of birth and death, there is much we do get to choose.
If we focus on the act of choosing, other questions arise: What does it mean to choose life apart from the obvious prohibition against suicide? How do we apply such a general imperative in our daily life? Why do we need to be commanded when, God knows, everyone wants to live, considering the alternative? What might our prayers look like if we drop the passive liturgy and pray instead to actively, wholeheartedly make the choice for life?
Now, I did not have all these thoughts listening to last year’s drasha. Rather, there in the pews, I closed my eyes and recalled a conversation I had had erev Rosh Hashanah with one of my dearest friends – a mentor and spiritual guide for much of my adult life, a teacher and healer for hundreds around the world, and also a mother who has suffered what most would call “the worst death”: the loss of her only child at the age of four.
I had been grousing about holiday loneliness and asked what she was doing. When she said, “I’m having 10 people over for Rosh Hashanah dinner,” I exclaimed, “How wonderful!” She replied, “What choice do I have? I have to choose life.” My breath caught. I said, “But you do have a choice and you have chosen well.” “Yes, but it’s not easy. It’s a day-to-day thing.”
Another image arose: the memory of a cousin, z”l, who lost a child to cancer at the age of 21. In spite of having another living daughter, this woman pulled down the shades and for the most part retreated from the world. She became depressed, bitter. My cousin was only 65 when she was found in her apartment, dead of a massive heart attack. Diagnosed with hypertension, she had refused the medication that might have saved her life.
I continued to think about these two women and two approaches to life’s tough challenges. Although I didn’t judge my cousin – how could I when I hadn’t walked in her shoes – I feared her negative model, a familial trait. And wondered about her tragic life and death. Is just staying alive year to year, living a half-life, choosing life?
So for my year’s commitment, I decided to study u’vcharta l’chaiim and to apply it as a daily meditative practice. How? By paying attention to habits, attitudes, activities, relationships that felt life giving and those that felt deadening. By asking myself, when confronted with decisions, which option would be choosing life? I was called to this practice because I hadn’t felt fully myself or fully alive in some time and knew it was my doing, not God’s. I was also drawn to consider the ethical and spiritual implications of the commandment and its relationship to the High Holy Days.
What quickly became evident was that the ability to choose life requires first seeing the choices clearly. Seeing the paths before us – the way of life and blessing, the way of death and woe – implies the need for active, engaged consciousness. This is no abstract exercise. Our options are numerous throughout each day –what we eat, whether we exercise, how we handle our money, what work we do, how we cope with life’s challenges, how we talk to and treat others, how we treat ourselves and use our precious time.
Before turning to Biblical sources, here are the kinds of questions that can arise doing a “choosing life” practice.
When faced with a growing bulge around my waistline and creeping cholesterol levels, do I repeatedly reject the French fries and ice cream so I can live another 3 or 5 or 7 years, or do I choose the here and now gustatory pleasure – no small thing in my world?
Do I follow my passion and hope the money will follow, or do I opt for a stable, secure job that’s boring or has long hours or stressful conditions?
Can I forgive a friend who’s hurt me or do I let the friendship go? Can I forgive myself?
The “right” choices are neither obvious nor easy. They differ from person to person and change from situation to situation, day to day.
For some of us choosing life will mean mobilizing ourselves out of depression or stagnation into activity and engagement. For others, it will mean recognizing that the stresses of overwork, driven ambition, being busy, busy, busy –whether to line our pockets, stroke our egos, or heal the world – are bad for us, and doing something about it.
How many of our activities make us feel alive but are reflexive, reactive habits, even addictions that only ease our escape from emptiness or anxiety? Might choosing life be putting down the cell phone or Blackberry, turning off the TV, computer or Game Boy and paying attention -- to our driving, our family and friends, our bodies, which are calling us to slow down and rest, rest which in our restless culture may feel like “death” but may ironically be the invitation to authentic, meaningful living?
Speaking of death, I’m often asked what I learned from working with ill and dying young parents for over a decade, and how I could bear such depressing work. Well, one important thing I found was that people forced to recognize life’s limits are often the most alive among us. The work was life giving for me, never depressing. I also learned the importance of facing and responsibly preparing for mortality, in part as a way to live more fully in the present -- especially in a culture that worships youth and longevity, that promotes speed and greed as hedges against the inevitable.
Death, illness, loss, even failure can bring us closer to what really matters. Sometimes it’s only when we’re pushed to the edge that we become conscious about the truth of our lives, ask the hard questions of identity, meaning, value, and faith, and see what our choices really are. In fact, it’s often said that illness is the American form of meditation. We don’t slow down or reflect on our lives until we’re forced to.
In contemplating the big questions – What is my life really about? -- we’re talking about the work of teshuvah, the accounting of souls and assessment of choices we engage in during Elul but can address at any time of year. The rabbis were wise enough to understand our resistance. Practice may never prepare us for the real thing, but practice helps. So they found ways to wake us up to our condition on the narrow bridge, including the cycle of High Holy Days, especially Yom Kippur, when we ritually choose to rehearse our death by wearing a shroud and abstaining from life-affirming activities like eating and sexuality. Again, the irony: We’re commanded to choose to face death in order to help us choose life.
The rabbis also understood that facing death and loss and making wise choices are no easier for us now than for our Biblical ancestors. So we have their very human examples in our Torah readings.
Some months into my practice I began to consider Biblical sources for Yamim Noraiim and was stunned by how much the mysteries of birth and death, especially the threat of death and loss figure throughout the Torah readings, not only on Yom Kippur. And not only do we focus on death, literal or metaphoric, we’re hammered with the “worst” death – that of children.
Rosh HaShanah is about cosmic and communal birth, a day of joy and hope for a new cycle, and with it the seeds of our possibilities: “all our little children.” Individual births abound in the readings, from the birth of Isaac to Hannah’s longed for pregnancy. But loss, death and tragedy hover in the wings.
On the first morning, Sarah’s ironic laughter greets her miraculous pregnancy at the age of 120, but in spite of this extraordinary blessing, she chooses to cast out another mother and child into the wilderness, condemning them to probable death.
We read of Hagar, the exiled mother, whose despair and helplessness are so great that she doesn’t even notice that her child is dying. Her own cries drown out his cries; her tears blind her to the choices that she does have.
Avraham, the father blessed with two sons, is willing to send Ishmael into exile and possible death on one day, and on another almost kills Isaac, traumatizing him for life, this miracle baby whose weaning occasioned laughter and a great feast.
And that is only Rosh HaShanah.
After 10 days, we’re plunged into Yom Kippur, our structured encounter with mortality. And what do we read? Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die suddenly, traumatically “when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.” Again, the death of children, albeit adults. In Torah, not even the High Priest is immune to the worst death.
In the afternoon, Jonah’s confronted with literal and existential death, with despair, and with the choice to wake up, to hear and heed the call. Or not.
Considering the holiday cycle and readings, I was struck by how the rabbis constructed a series of prayers, rituals and stories that repeatedly bring us to our own threshold, to wake us up just in case we haven’t been listening to the shofar blowing each morning of Elul or haven’t otherwise gotten the message that life is fragile and brief.
Much is written about why God smote Nadav and Avihu, but for the purpose of this drasha, the point of the reading may be the simple shock value of their sudden death. Wake up! It seems to say. Everything can change in a heartbeat. There is much we do not control. Wake up! Life is short. What are you doing with your precious time here?
Of course, we don’t need the holidays to rouse us. Life events will do: a serious illness; the death of someone beloved; an accident; a natural disaster; divorce; the loss of work and saving – anything that shakes up our provisional certainties and necessary illusions and brings us to what we need to see, hear, change in order to return to the life of the soul, the authentic life, the joyous life. But most of us will go unconscious again as quickly as possible. It’s human nature.
So we lucky Jews can count on volunteering for an existential crisis on an annual basis, not to help God make up God’s mind about us, but to help us make up our own minds about how we’re going to live.
I was also struck by how in each reading an ancestor faces an existential, ethical or spiritual challenge demanding an action or decision. And how their situations, however removed from our contemporary lives, highlight the human dilemma of choosing life.
Did Sarah choose life when she decided to banish Hagar and Ishmael? Did she question her prior certainties and feel remorse later on when her own son returned from the mountain, broken, and she was powerless to protect or heal him? Did she become as despondent as Hagar?
Did an anguished Hagar choose life when she neglected her dehydrated child? Are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness over life’s unfairness acceptable reasons to give up? Perhaps there’s a child within us – the neglected, dessicated soul – still crying for the healing waters of our true life. If we’re deaf to our own cries, how can we respond to those of children suffering in our midst? What will open our eyes to the well right next to us?
Did Nadav and Avihu think they were choosing life when they broke the rules and built the strange fire? Risk taking is, after all, a part of living fully. Or was their choice impulsive, driven by the sirens of greed, envy or the desire to escape real life into a spiritual bypass? Risk-taking is not the same as recklessness. There is a fine line between the creative or spiritual fire and burning up like Icarus.
What of Avraham? Did he choose life when he cast out Ishmael or walked Isaac up the mountain? Each day of the chag, it seems, we read that Avraham hears a different call. One day: Cast out your wife and child! Another day: Slay your other child! No, No, save him! Should he listen to Sarah, listen to God, listen to himself?
How do we learn to discern the true call from the false, to choose well and wisely? Surrendering to circumstances, being willing to sit in the tent, in the empty space, in silence, listening for the still small voice – sounds like a plan, but which call shall we heed? Torah is often confusing on this score, which is why we’re still arguing about the Akedah after thousands of years.
God whispers and we’re sent to the desert . . . or the knife is raised. God whispers and we find we’re pregnant with new life; we’re shown the well. What a challenge it is to be human. What a challenge it is to be Jewish. To have a God who creates weal and woe, blessing and curse, life and death – and then expects us use our freedom moment to moment to figure out which call to follow, which to choose for life, for the good.
We’re commanded to come to shul on Yom Kippur and here we are. Before the gates, we’re faced with the fundamental human predicament: How do we live knowing we will die? How do we go on in the face of broken hearts and broken dreams? Choosing life means many different things at different times, but the greatest challenge may be not just deciding to survive after disappointment and loss, but deciding to author a new narrative of living fully and joyfully again. For this we need not only communal support, but also role models, and we can find them in Torah and in our own lives.
When my friend’s child died suddenly, she tells me she couldn’t stop screaming, then became stone. When Nadav and Avihu die suddenly, Aaron, we are told, is silent. Traditional commentaries state that the only possible response to horrific death may be silence, perhaps a different kind of scream. But Aaron is not only silent. He also enters silence, the Holy of Holies, the charged emptiness and depths of the unknown, perhaps the only place where something new can happen.
Equally interesting is to ask, “What does Aaron do?” Well, he keeps very, very busy: bathing, dressing in sacral linens, making expiation for his household and community, slaughtering the goat, purging the altar. Aaron continues to do what God expected of him – his priestly job. Sleepwalking perhaps. Maybe wanting to die. But going on nonetheless. We could say that Aaron was a living kaddish. His heart a stone, he glorifies and sanctifies. Perhaps the combination of silence, acting “as if,” prayer and ritual allowed him to go beyond survival, to eventually re-inhabit his life with meaning and vitality.
A final example of a living kaddish closer to home. Earlier this summer, I learned that the 21-year old son of a dear friend had died. Although his life had been greatly limited due to profound mental and physical disabilities since birth, he was still his parents’ beloved child and they were plunged into the kind of grief all parents hope to avoid. At her son’s memorial service a month after his death, my friend chose to sing, as she had often done to communicate with her boy during his brief life. She didn’t get to choose the givens of that life or to protect him from what she called his unspeakable suffering punctuated by moments of joy. She didn’t get to choose when or how he died. But she sang. And then I witnessed something even more remarkable. This mother, clearly in deep mourning, spontaneously rose with the music and began to dance, pulling up others to snake around the room with her in what could only be called a profound assertion of blessing life. Hers, too, was a living kaddish. What an example and gift, I thought, for her younger son – to know that his mother would go on choosing life.
In the remaining hours of Yom Kippur, we get to choose how we are here, whether wholehearted or half-hearted, present or absent, grateful or bitter, joyous or despairing, just like every other day of our life up to the moment of death. As Isaiah asks in the Haftorah, Is this the fast I have chosen, we too can ask ourselves: Is this the life I have chosen? What do I need to choose differently in the coming year? What do I need to let die so I can fully live? And, what prayers do I need now to help me choose life?
Today, when we ask to be written into the Book of Life, I invite you to imagine your own hand scribbling yourself into a fuller, richer existence, perhaps in holy collaboration with God as silent co-author.
May we each have another year to write ourselves a new chapter of life-affirming choices. G’mar Tov.