As a parent, I find myself talking to my children over and over again about making good decisions and taking responsibility for their actions. It is not an easy message to convey. In a time when many leaders deny accountability for their words and their actions, it is not simple to remind ourselves and our children that the choices we make and the words we speak matter, and that they have long term consequences both for us and for others.
In Parshat Netzavim, God tells us once again:
“I call heaven and earth today to bear witness against you: I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
The greatest gift God has given us as human beings is the freedom of choice and the ability to create our own destinies. Unlike the heavens and the earth, whose roles were set in motion long ago, we can choose how we want to act, if we would like to pursue life or death and if we are in search of blessing or curse.
An inherent feature of the established Jewish calendar is that Parshat Netzavim is read annually on the last Shabbat of the year (see Shulhan Arukh 428:4). On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment, we are reminded that the path we travel is one that we forge ourselves and that, in turn, we alone are held responsible for our choices.
The Rambam (Maimonides) writes in the Laws of Repentance:
Everyone has been granted the capacity to either incline himself in the direction of goodness and to be righteous, or, if he so chooses, to incline himself in the direction of wrongfulness and be wrongful… Do not even contemplate the notion that God decides at birth whether a person will be righteous or wicked. This is not true. Each person has the potential to become a righteous person going in the ways of the prophet Moses our teacher, or to be an evildoer like Yerovam. He may acquire wisdom or foolishness, be compassionate or ruthless, miserly or generous, or have any other character trait. There is no higher power that compels, persuades or decrees which path one must choose. He is on his own accord. He freely chooses the road he wants to follow (chapter 5).
Taking responsibility for our actions is a challenge on many levels. People wrong us, let us down, offend us and affect our lives in painful and consequential ways. Events beyond our control wreak havoc upon our day-to-day routines. Car accidents, terror attacks and devastating diagnoses seem to happen all around us, only to then strike close to home when we are least prepared.
It is all too easy to sink into despair, throw up our hands and blame others, if not pure chance, for the places in which we find ourselves and the way things have turned out.
But Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, tells us in his acclaimed book, Man’s Search for Meaning:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
I was once privileged to participate in a seminar on mindful parenting led by a friend. We discussed how a major component of mindfulness is being aware of how you feel in the moment. It means stopping to absorb what you are experiencing, to acknowledge those feelings and to give yourself the space to accept them honestly. At that moment of awareness, however, you then have the ability to choose how you want to interpret that feeling, how much control you want to let it have over you (or vice versa), what narrative you want to build around it and how you want to react and proceed forward.
Sitting in the seminar, I recalled an episode I had experienced a few years back, on a summer family trip to the Golan. After stops at tie-dying and chocolate-making, we searched for something more meaningful and connected to the Golan specifically with which to close our day. Without completely realizing what we were in for, we landed at a movie commemorating a terrible tank battle that occurred during the Yom Kippur War in Emek Habacha.
As we sat there watching the difficult scenes, I felt the tension build in my young sons sitting next to me. In that moment, it hit me that they were absorbing this movie not from a historical perspective, as tourists, as much of the extended family was. Rather, they were imagining themseves as future soldiers. As the lights turned on, my assumptions were confirmed as my then-9-year-old turned to me, and, his voice shaking, said, “I don’t know how I am going to get through the army.”
Wanting so badly to allay his fears (and my own), I told him that there are all kinds of jobs in the army, and that perhaps he can go into intelligence or computers if he would so prefer. Without a pause he responded, “I could never do that, Ema. Why should other people go out to fight for this country and not me?”
There is a moment after our initial reaction when we get to decide how to proceed. Viktor Frankl describes it beautifully. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
As we kick off the High Holiday season this Sunday night and reflect on this past year, we will likely be feeling many different things. There might be sadness, mourning, fear and anger that leave us feeling passive, apathetic, hurt or vengeful. On the flipside, we might be feeling fulfilled, satisfied, fortunate and blessed but maybe a little too complacent and entitled as a result. Or, we might be experiencing a paradoxical mix of all of these emotions at once.
Choosing life means realizing that in any of these situations, there are always choices to be made. That we are not given the freedom to sit back and let things play out. We cannot control other people or events that transpire, but we can actively take responsibility for our responses and for making the right decisions for ourselves. The stakes are high. Life or death. Blessing or curse.
Taking responsibility for our choices means stopping to think about what we ultimately want. It often involves sacrificing short-term and immediate gratification for long-term satisfaction and deep fulfillment. It means holding back and exhibiting self-control in order to achieve goals that are more important and ultimately more worthwhile to us. Taking responsibility requires self-awareness and reflection. It means rising to our potential and demanding ever more from ourselves.
Our parsha exhorts us to take responsibility. To make choices with determination and strength. Choices from a place of faith and trust that our future can and will be better.
That is what it means to choose life.
More, that is what it means to live.