Choose Life

Rabbi René’s sermon on Rosh Hashanah morning

Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, has allegedly said, “we are our choices”. After some research, it seems that he actually never said that, and the closest quote to this statement can be found in one of his masterpieces, “Existentialism is Humanism”, published in 1946:

“Indeed, there is not a single one of our actions which, by creating the man we want to be, does not at the same time create an image of the man we think we ought to be”. In other words, it is not our actions that make us what we would like to be, but our choices about those actions that make us what we ought to be. Or, as Anne Frank said in her diary, “our lives are fashioned by our choices. First, we make choices, then our choices make us”.

It is very tempting, when facing a life of challenges, to give in to despair, to throw up our hands and to feel worn out. God knows, we are not short of challenges at the beginning of this new Jewish year. We have just lost our totemic figure, the matriarch of the nation, loved and respected well beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. We are also facing a series of global crisis, global warming, the war in Ukraine, the rising costs of living in the UK and beyond, the rise of the far right in Europe, as we’ve seen just today with the elections result in Italy – many uncertainties about our future as a nation and, dare I say, as a species. Our emotions are in turmoil, we feel angry, and yet despondent. The means of communication are ubiquitous, and yet we don’t know how to discuss anymore. Social media have entirely reframed the way we have conversations, our relationship to truth, to authority, to order. In 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, the word most used in the media was, according to the Oxford dictionary, post-truth. That says a lot about the state of the public discourse.

However, I am convinced that a time of crisis can also present us with an excellent opportunity to reinvent ourselves.

This year, I have decided to search with you the tools that come from our tradition, that may help us not to give in to despair. On Rosh Hashanah, I want to talk about choice. On Yom Kippur, I’ll talk about resilience. Both are deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition. Both explain why our people have survived so many centuries despite so many setbacks. Both are intimately intertwined. And both can help us through these difficult times.

I would like to start with a quote from the Talmud, from Tractate Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: All the animals of the creation—were created in their full-grown stature, they were created with their consent, and according to their form (Rosh Hashanah 11a).

The rabbis taught that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world, or by some accounts, the sixth day of creation, the day that humanity was created. Liturgically, the day is seen as more than just an anniversary. We pray “Hayom Harat Olam,” today the world is born, suggesting that the world, humanity, and each of us individually, are created “today,” every Rosh Hashanah. That is the essence of Progressive Judaism: the world is created each and every day by us in partnership with God, and God speaks to us each and every day, each and every generation. This conversation is never ending, and we must be prepared to hear God’s words for us today in this particular place.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s teaching about the process of creation suggests something surprizing: each creature has a measure of choice in its own self creation; its “consent” is required.

This idea will be familiar to anyone who has engaged in creative work of any kind. At some point in the creative process, the object being created begins to create its own form. The same is true of human beings. Of course, our self-creation comes from who we are, and not from anywhere else. We are all born with unique physical, intellectual, and emotional characteristics, and into particular social and familial structures. Within the realm of things within our control, we actively create ourselves on Rosh Hashanah, and indeed every day. And we do so through our choices.

In the Torah portion we read last Shabbat, Parashat Nitzavim, we find these words.

See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil . . . Life and death I place before you, as well as blessing and curse. Choose life (Deut. 30:15, 19). 

Why does this commandment to “choose life” really mean? Each self-creation is a creative act, the result of the many choices we make every day. Most of the time, we are not conscious of why we make a particular choice, but it is always congruent with who we are internally. When Torah says, “choose life”, it means that life must be the main focus of this self-creative process.

However, we know that there is a human tendency to self-destruction; for many reasons we sometimes choose to hurt ourselves and those around us. It is like an impulse hard to resist. To choose life we must actively, consciously, and continually choose who we will become in a positive manner. We must choose to create ourselves and our lives, rather than passively allow ourselves to be shaped by others or by the circumstances. At heart, we must choose to choose.

We are most fully alive when we are actively, consciously engaged in the process of choosing who we want to be. And that is when hope comes in. Even though, sometimes we feel that we have little choice in the direction of our lives, we must always remember that freewill, a Divine gift to humankind, gives us the power and the agency to choose the best path. That is also the message of Rosh Hashanah: we have the tools to create ourselves anew, to make the right choices individually as well as collectively, to be inscribed in the book of life.

The Talmud teaches of the three books open on Rosh Hashanah:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the beinonim, intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed in the book of death; the beinonim—they are suspended and stand from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not merit, they are inscribed in the book of death (Rosh Hashanah 16b).

As uncomfortable as some of us are with the idea of God sitting in judgment and decreeing life or death, this reading may be even more challenging, because it puts the responsibility directly on us. No one else. Just us. We must choose.

Perhaps this is one reason why we need to be commanded to choose life. All too often, we readily relinquish our power to choose because we don’t want to bear responsibility for our choices, or we simply don’t know what to choose. Other times, we do know what to choose, but the right choice feels too demanding; it involves too much work, loss, change, or risk.

And we have many strategies to avoid choosing. Sometimes we are passive, allowing life to simply happen to us. Other times we are reactive and reflexive, acting on impulse without thinking of the consequences. And often, we avoid having to make choices today by simply sticking to the choice we made yesterday, for no other reason than that we made it. This strategy of status quo is a mark of laziness. I can’t help it, or I couldn’t care less, is often our response to challenges that appear too overwhelming.

You may remember this passage of the Mishnah:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it (P.A. 2: 16).

Choosing life is a moral imperative. We are the people of the choice – the choosing people, rather than the chosen people -, and we are not at liberty to neglect our task. This compelling commandment to choose life is at the heart of the Jewish tradition. It applies to the little choices we make every day, what we want to eat, how we want to engage in a relationship, but also to the big, collective decisions we make as a community, as a society. Who is going to represent us? Which policy do we want to support? When do we have to speak out because we feel that we are going astray? When do we have to call out to those in power when they make decisions that benefit only a few, and not the many? We have the choice to say yes or no. Our choices cannot be selfish. Of course, we need to choose what is right for us, but also what is right for all of us.

That is, I believe, the profound message of Rosh Hashanah. We take comfort in the passing of time, because we are aware of the cycle of good and bad years. We know that gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass, provided we play an active role in this change.

Ultimately, each choice changes us profoundly. And we ask ourselves, will making a particular choice turn me into someone who is better able to make the next choice? What will this choice teach me? Will it increase my courage, my strength? Will it deepen my capacity to love, sensitize me, educate me? Will it make me more ethical? Will it contribute to the betterment of our world?

I will leave you with these questions. We certainly have many different answers because we are all unique human beings with particular circumstances. But, as the poet once said, “no man is an island”: whatever we choose for us will alter the course of the world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s Will.

Shanah Tova u’metukah, may you have a sweet new year, a year in which you’ll make the right choices, and a year in which we’ll see the world changing to become a better place.

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