Choose Life!

While our Rosh Hashanah liturgy is replete with images of HKBH sitting on His throne of judgement with the Books of Life and Death open before Him (See U’netaneh Tokef, B’Rosh Hashanah Yikatevun, Amidah); interestingly, the concept of Rosh Hashanah as “Yom HaDin”–a day of judgement–does not fully emerge until the Rabbinic period.

There are allusions to G-d seated on His heavenly throne with ledgers open before Him in Biblical literature such as in Daniel 7:10, (time of Nebuchadnezzer & the Babylonian Exile), Psalms ch. 47 and in the Mishnaic period in Avot 3:20 and also in the apocryphal book of Jubilees.

In the Biblical text (Lev 23:23-25 and in Nu 29:1-6) Rosh Hashanah is referred to as “Yom HaZikaron” and as “Yom Teruah”–a “Day of Remembrance” and a “Day of the Shofer Blast”.

During the 2nd Temple Period various sects existed and competed for authority over the Jewish people, including the Sadducees who did not believe in Divine Providence or in other worldly reward and punishment. The Essenes were monistic. The Zealots focused on rebellion against Rome and were ardent activists; and, the Pharisees–the proto-rabbis–promoted a belief in the Oral Torah and in Divine Providence as well as a belief in reward and punishment in the World-to-Come. (See “The Jewish War”, F. Josephus)

The Pharisees and Rabbinic Judaism win the day in the end likely because of their ability to recreate Judaism post-destruction of the 2nd Temple–by replacing Temple-centered worship with a more democratized home and synagogue-based system of worship–a system that would be capable of surviving in Exile without a Temple–and even leading to vastly flourishing communities in Eretz Israel and in Bavel.

So it is certainly noteworthy when in Rabbinic times we first see an allusion to Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgement in Mishnah RH 16a: “At 4 junctures [during the year] the world is judged…on Rosh Hashanah, all who come into the world pass before Him…”

Then, this theme of “Yom HaDin” is further developed in the Talmudic period as we see in Talmud RH 16b:

“Rabbi Keruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one of intermediate people.  The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life; the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death; the intermediate people are held in abeyance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur: if they merit it, they are written for life; if they do not merit it, they are written for death.”

Our liturgy today reflects the assumption that most of us view ourselves as in the intermediate category and therefore the 10 Days of Teshuva between and including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will help us to win HKBH’s favor and enter us into the Book of Life.

[I would add that the concept of the 3 books, as opposed to 2 books, is developed very uniquely much later by the Alter Rebbe, R Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in his “Tanya”–which is focused on the “intermediate” category of Jew–at least partially out of a recognition that most people do not fit into “black” or “white” categories of good or evil but are somewhere in the middle.  However, that said, the “Benoni” intermediate category itself represents a very high level of righteousness and holiness.]

At this juncture I return to our parshiot of the week and suggest that one of the many ways the Torah is such an iconoclastic text to emerge from the context of biblical times is evidenced in parshat “Nitzavim” where the Torah is asking every single Jew, metaphorically speaking, to choose to write his or her name into either the “Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”–thereby implying that is is our choice at least in part to make such a commitment and to live in consonance with the Torah’s life-giving value system. After all, the Torah states that to love G-d means to choose life, good, blessing, and a Torah-committed, life-affirming life-style.

As we see from even a few verses from “Nitzavim“:

(Deut 29:9-11)You are standing today, all of you…” suggests that all of HKBH’s people are viewed as equal in His eyes, irregardless of their sex or status in society.

…before HaShem your G-d…” implies an invitation to an agreement whereby the actions of the individuals as well as the behavior of the group as a whole are all meaningful and significant. “HaShem” represents a moral legal system of absolute, transcendent, non-changing G-dly values.

“…for you to pass into the covenant…that HaShem your G-d seals with you today…” suggests that we are, so to speak, HKBH’s partners in this Covenant.

(Deut 30:2) “…You will return unto HaShem…” signifies to us that the Torah does not pre-occupy itself with an “original sin”; on the contrary, it understands that human beings are fallible but it nevertheless believes in the individual’s potential for “teshuva” or “returning” which is built into the system as a vehicle for renewal and self-transformation.

(Deut 30:5) “HaShem your G-d will bring you to the Land…”  This is the gift of Eretz Israel to G-d’s people which offers the possibility of creating an ideal society based on the overarching values of Torah–in a physical space that is no longer under the control of foreign nations and their leaders’ whims.

(Deut 30:15) “See–I have placed before you today the life and good and the death and evil…teaches that the choice is in your hands.

But if your heart will stray…and you prostrate yourself to strange gods and serve them…” implies that we can choose “strange gods” or alternative value systems which place other “values” at the center of our lives–such as power, wealth, youth, beauty, or narcissism.  However, it is implicit that you will thereby be left to the whims of these “gods” and your life will deteriorate as you focus on competition, anger, jealousy, and never feeling that you have enough.

(Deut 30:18) “…You will surely be lost...” is thereby consequential and inevitable as a result of bad decision-making.

(Deut 30:19) “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and, you shall choose life…” is a profession of the confidence that HKBH and the Torah have in human beings and our ability to ultimately make the right choices and achieve an ideal and life-affirming life in our Land.

Torah sh’baal-peh provides us with the vehicles for achieving our G-dly goals, thereby, empowering us and inspiring us to truly believe that evil can be eradicated and that redemption is inevitable.

So, choose life!

About the Author
Deborah was born in Morristown Tennessee and went to college at Brandeis, JTS, and Yeshiva University. She has an MS in Jewish education, an MA in Judaic studies, and an MSW in Social Work. She has also taken courses at Brovender's, Drisha, and Nishmat. She has worked for NYANA, served as Director of Senior Services at the Riverdale YMHA and has worked at the Claims Conference with holocaust survivors. Most recently after studying at the Pardes Institute Kollel she successfully completed Yoreh Deah studies with Rav Daniel Landes.