"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907
"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907

Moses keeps trying to save us from ourselves

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Moses has reached his last day on Earth. As he prepares to leave the physical world and enter the realm of myth, the choice he offers to his people, then and now, is stark and terrifying.

“I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day. I have put before you life and death; blessing and curse. Choose life – so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Choose. Life. Two words that dare us to take a long hard look at who we are and how we experience our days. Do we choose life? How exactly do we do that? What did Moses mean by it?

A beautiful and sensitive teenager to whom I’m closely related, while despairing of a typical but unsettling adolescent challenge, wheeled on me one day with the astute observation: “I didn’t ask to be born!”

Somewhat frustrated with the high-intensity situation, I reminded him honestly: “My dear one, none of us did!”

And yet born we all were. Not choosing anything, we come into the world utterly helpless, into a set of circumstances entirely beyond our control. If we are unspeakably fortunate, ultimately we’ll be able to choose where we live, who we love, what work and dreams we pursue — and we’ll be able to make changes should the need arise.

In the meantime, and when times are especially hard, we may seem perpetually at a crossroads. Down one path, we are told, are darkness and pain. Down the other are light and grace. Why would we even think of choosing the former?

And yet we do, all of the time. We rush headlong as individuals and as a species into decisions that threaten to doom us and the children for whom we are told expressly by Moses to ensure a sustainable future. He knew that we would choose poorly (we already had numerous times since the Exodus), and so, in his final hours, he pleads.

To choose life cannot be merely to keep breathing, though that alone can be one of the greatest hurdles some of us will ever face. Against the unrelenting anxieties and terrors of the modern world, it shouldn’t surprise us that a terrible percentage of human beings admit wrestling regularly with the urge to end it all.

There are no guarantees. The grand system of reward and punishment in Deuteronomy just doesn’t bear out in this upside-down world.

So, what does Moses intend, with the wisdom of 120 incomparable years, when he implores the people to take the way of life and blessing?

He tells us: “By loving the Eternal your God, hearing God’s voice (some translate “heeding God’s commands”) and clinging fully to Him. Thus, you will have life and length of days….” (Deuteronomy 30:20)

A deeply caring adult student recently looked at a similar biblical “guarantee” — long life for adhering to the mitzvot and “holding fast” to God — and quietly raised her hand. “Rabbi,” she said in a small, sincere voice, “what if I just don’t believe that?”

I had to let that hang in the air for a while. There are no guarantees. The grand system of reward and punishment in Deuteronomy just doesn’t bear out in this upside-down world. The psalmist certainly knew it: “the wicked thrive like grass, and doers of evil seem to flourish.…” (Psalms 92:8)

Some take comfort in the thought of an afterlife, and surrender to faith in a Supreme Being who will balance the scales and mete out justice — eventually. But irrespective of our theology or lack thereof, the great architects of Judaism ask us to invest completely and wholly in the possibilities of life right now, today, regardless of the circumstances and especially when the world is not as we wish it to be.

After what seemed like an eternity, I ventured a response to that lovely, lifelong learner. I’m still working on it for myself, and maybe always will be.

I said, “What I think the Torah means is that when we live with a sense of wonder at the miracle of life, from wherever or whatever source we believe it comes, when we do our daily tasks, especially the small and mundane ones, with what Heschel called ‘radical amazement’ at the impossibly intricate web of existence, when our eyes are open to the possibilities of the world and our hearts are open to the pain of others — then our days, no matter how many or how few, seem fuller, richer, less fleeting and maybe even a bit longer.”

The words “choose life” are heady ones. They may signal a political call to arms or an existential imperative. But the Mussar masters teach that life, everyday life, offers an unending succession of what they call “bechirah,” or “choice,” moments. Some decisions are clearly and potentially life-altering, but others, often the quietest ones, can also profoundly impact the quality and character of our days.

If you could stop time for an instant, what choices could you identify, from the largest to the most minute, that lie before you, right now? Do you choose the way of hurt — of yourself, others and the world? Or do you, as our ancestors hoped, “choose life” and the promise of regeneration, redemption and blessing?

The word “hayom,” or “today” appears over and over again in Nitzavim. It’s the last day Moses has, and he uses it to the full. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. This fleeting and irreplaceable moment is all that we have. How will we choose to honor the life we are given?

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].