“Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil,” G-d warns the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy. “You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.”
If those are the only multiple-choice answers in God’s test called “Life,” why did He really have to tell us what to choose? Which rational-minded person would not choose life? Who would say, “Nah,” I think I’ll pick death, but thanks for the offer.” And yet, more often than we think, we actually do pick death. Perhaps we don’t elect it in one fell swoop as would an executioner wielding a sharp sickle, but even more cruelly and self-deceptively we choose death by a thousand cuts. Simple examples which support that premise are the “toxic” foods or drinks we grab for regularly which slowly compromise our health leading to diabetes, hypertension alcoholism, etc.
Then there is the deadly choice of having the wrong friends. They are the fun-loving lot who waste our time, kill our ambition, distract us with false fleeting pleasures and pursuits, and effectively help us kill the best years of our life and persuade us to spurn momentous opportunities. Often they help us slough off our values and beliefs too. Many years later we wake up dead and question, “What happened to the person I used to be and where is the one I wanted to be?” We do the same things to ourselves spiritually, one “small” sin at a time. We kill ourselves slowly. No, we don’t “wake up” dead overnight. Rather, it’s a slow almost imperceptible war of attrition against ourselves. We at first dip our toe in a pool of vagaries and soon find ourselves far from the shores of certainty. To be honest, that’s why I always detested multiple choice exams at school. I couldn’t use my words skills to spin a tale somewhere in the gray area and pretend I knew the answer. The instructions were clear. Take your HB no.2 pencil and fill in ONE answer boldly. Do you choose life or death, good or bad? That’s the thing with the Almighty God, even more than my college professors or Bill O’Reilly, He is the King of the No Spin Zone.
There are two oft-used sentences which give more proof that the person saying them is choosing death rather than life. They are, “I hate my life” and “I love my life.” Both these statements reveal a lack of faith, a lack of purpose and are inherently comfort-zone cop outs.
Let’s first enter the world of the chronic complainers—“I hate my life.” We read about them in last week’s Torah portion, they are the freed Israelites. The Egyptians had enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labor and embittered their lives: “The children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God….” So, God freed them with a mighty hand and performed numerous miracles for them. And yet still, after all they saw and lived through they were extremely distressed by every challenge they faced, so much so, that they lamented ever leaving Egypt. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?” Contrary to the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Israelites, once having obtained liberty, said give me slavery. Servitude, after all, offers a sense of comfort, just as our own habits and routines are a form of slavery; we feel safe because we know what tomorrow will look like: We went to sleep a slave; we will wake up a slave. The burden of having to challenge ourselves is muted. Even after God opened The Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through and smote the Egyptians, upon the next perceived hurdle they recall Egypt with nostalgia putting a new spin on their former embittered lives: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!”
If we don’t fight the fear of change in our own lives and abandon the comfort zone, we will always be crying to return to Egypt. We will resort to choosing evil because we are really more afraid to live than to die. Most of the Israelites preferred to worship Egypt’s useless Gods of stone and to be slaves to certainty rather than to serve the Almighty God of their forefathers. And so it may come as surprise to know that the Israelites were not spared during the plague of darkness. Yes they could see when the Egyptians could not, but during the cover of darkness God smote four-fifths of them–2,400,000 died because they were wicked and did not want to leave Egypt.[i] So enmired were they in their dark deeds, it is fitting they died in darkness never to see the light of the Torah that awaited their people.
And even for those who left Egypt as God and Moses instructed, the waters of the mighty sea did not part for them until they first jumped in neck-deep and showed faith in the unknown future that God had in store for them. The sages teach that not only did The Red Sea part, but all the waters of the world divided. For when the Jewish people serve God’s will with faith, even nature itself will override its own natural behavior to accommodate them and help them. And you’re scared, why?
It’s rather simple: if you hate your life, it’s because you are a prisoner of your own insecurities, a self-shackled slave and person of no faith. If you hate your life, it’s because you do not recognize the Godly spirit inside you, nor the Godly hand that guides you. He gave us the exit strategy: He opened the sea before us, and gave us the Book of Life, his Torah. So, why are you choosing death? Why are you looking backward? There is nothing left for you there! “…For the Lord said to you, ‘You shall not return that way anymore.’”
Sometimes it is not nostalgia and self-deception that keep us miserably locked in the past, but hatred. Our hearts become poisoned with it so that even if we “leave Egypt,” Egypt doesn’t leave us. When we bear grudges and foster hate, they keep us imprisoned and nourish the sick sentiment of “I hate my life.” And so the Torah wisely commands us, even after all the Egyptians did to us, “You shall not despise an Egyptian….” Let it go. Move on! “DO not be afraid,” the Almighty ensures us. “I will go before you and fight your battles.” So just believe that God will and more importantly, give Him a reason to do so.
Now if you’re not too dead, let’s enter Fantasy Island— the land of “I love my life.” … To be continued Tuesday