“I have placed before you today the life and the good and the death and the evil,” Moshe tells us. “Choose life.”
Maybe those are two choices, and we’re advised to choose good because that leads to life.
But maybe there’s a different, less obvious choice being highlighted. The wording takes us back to the Garden of the Eden, where the choices were between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which led to death. Perhaps Moshe is saying don’t overly focus on whether you or others are good or evil. Choose life.
Moshe expands on the correct choice’s meaning “To love the Lord your God, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life and the length of your days …”
Do I choose to love God and walk in His ways because I choose righteousness or because I choose life? Maybe it’s just semantics. Or maybe the choice of life over righteousness lets us truly live, and walk with God, and be happier and better people.
The first sin in the Torah is at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Perhaps the real sin there isn’t the disobedience, but the blame game that followed. Justifying ourselves by projecting our sin on to others.
The resulting punishments to the snake (who represents an aspect of man) and to the woman add pain, anger and death to the core experiences of life and love.
God’s description of man’s smaller sin as “Because you listened to your wife [when it contradicted my commandment] …” is a hint to the bigger sin, Adam’s weasel blaming of “the woman that you gave me.”
The story ends with Adam realizing that the woman is her own person with her own identity. He names her Eve, the mother of all who live.
The Torah contains overlapping literary structures. In one structure, the Torah is the stories of the children of Israel and of Moshe. In another structure, it’s the story of life. In this structure, the first chapter is the prologue and Moshe’s final day is the epilogue. The story begins with the creation of life, and of the trees that represent life and death. It ends with Moshe’s call to choose life. It is a story of our efforts to return from our exiles, to heal our rifts and to learn how to live.
The choice whether to live or to judge good and evil is a choice that’s with us every day. A choice I fail at repeatedly.
Hillel once saw a skull floating on the water and he said because you killed you were killed, and he who killed you will be killed as well.
The story is less tragic but equally true on a day-to-day level of mundane discussions. I get thrown by somebody’s judgment, a comment that mocks and demonizes me, or people about whom I care. A comment that infers that I’m evil, or at least not good. I get angry and judgmental right back, and provoke the next round. In every aspect of that experience I feel myself dying a little more.
Righteous anger, I try reminding myself, is not a form of righteousness. It’s a form of anger.
The incident repeats itself on the level of close family, Facebook friends, and bloggers I’ve never met. If I were a video game character, you could watch my life force rapidly deplete in each encounter.
It’s small consolation that I’m in good company. Righteous anger is the sin that killed Moshe. But he told me his story so that I may stop repeating his mistake.
During the ten days of repentance, the primary theme of our requests is not for righteousness but for life.
We can interpret this through the eyes of the Netaneh Tokef prayer. The Master of Death judges whether we were good or evil. Our call to choose life is a trembling plea for the King to spare us the punishments we deserve.
But maybe there’s another level to some of these prayers. Maybe the secret of repentance is to focus on that other tree.
“Remember us for life,” we say, “King who desires life. And inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake oh Living God.”
Maybe the calls for life are not primarily a request from God, but rather a call to ourselves. To focus on God as the giver of life. To choose life and to reject the enticing tree of judgment, of righteousness, of evil.
May we choose life this year, so that we may live. To love God, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is our life and the length of our days.