Parashat Nitzavim/ VaYelekh 5780
You would think this would be an easy choice:
דברים פרק ל
(יט) העדתי בכם היום את השמים ואת הארץ החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך:
I call the heavens and the earth to witness for you today: life and death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse, and you should choose life, so that you shall live, you and your descendants.
It would seem to be a no-brainer: life and blessing versus death and curse, for ourselves and everyone else. But we look around ourselves today and see people choosing not life but attitudes and behaviors that lead to sickness and death for themselves and others they come in contact with. Some people are choosing illusory religious certainty, taking forms such as blind obedience to cloistered authority figures and their manipulative handlers, or obsessive-compulsive pilgrimage under unhealthy conditions, or idolatrous literalism and fantasy that shuts out life and knowledge and reality. Some people are choosing trivial liberties. Some people are choosing pleasures of the moment. Some people are choosing self-centered and spurious rights they think entitle them to behave with irresponsible abandon. A pandemic in the 21st century shouldn’t be such a hard thing to navigate. It’s an invisible killer and sickener, but scientifically and medically educated and mature, moderately disciplined people, especially those who pretend to the discipline of Torah and mitzvot, should be able to realize how it spreads and take adequate precautions. We Jews have a double-edged reputation: other nations think of us as a clever people, for better or worse; the Torah calls us a stiff people. Right now the stiffs are prevailing and not choosing life, not for themselves nor for others.
Actually, it’s not a no-brainer. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch warns:
רש”ר הירש דברים פרשת ניצבים פרק ל פסוק יט
ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה וגו’. אין אדם זוכה ב”חיים” בלא דעת ובלא רצון ובדרך מקרה, אלא יש צורך לרצות ולהחליט בכובד ראש. עליך לבחור בחיים אם רצונך “לחיות”.
“And you should choose life, in order that you shall live…” A person does not merit life without knowledge and without will, nor in an accidental way. Rather, it is necessary to will and to decide with seriousness. It is upon you to choose life if you want to live.
Rabbi Hirsch is warning us that Torah life requires us to use our brain and our heart, a knowledgeable and serious approach to understanding the principles of Torah. We need to understand that the Torah is תורת חיים, a Torah of Life, that commands:
ויקרא פרק יח פסוק ה
ושמרתם את חקתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני יקוק: ס
You should observe My statutes and My judgments, that a person shall do and live by them, I am HaShem.
In the Gemara Yuma 85a-b it brings a discussion on the question:
מניין לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת?
From where do we learn that mortal danger pushes aside Shabbat?
Several rabbis offer their proofs, and ultimately the prooftext of Shmuel is accepted:
וחי בהם – ולא שימות בהם.
“You should live by them (Lev 18:5),” and not that you should die by them.
That is, mitzvot are God-given guides to living fully and properly in this world, and you should do them in a way that furthers life, not in a way that leads to death. The example given is keeping Shabbat, one of the glories of Torah life. The restrictions on work during Shabbat are meant to enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of God’s gift of life. But in a situation in which there is danger to life, and restrictions of Shabbat would limit ability to save life, those restrictions are overruled and everything must be done without delay to protect life. It’s instructive that Maimonides, in his codification of the laws of Shabbat in his great halakhic work Mishneh Torah, devotes the entire second chapter, that is, at the beginning of his discussion, to when and how to break Shabbat in situations in which there is danger to life, even just the questionable possibility of danger to life. In other words, before you can learn how to keep Shabbat, you first need to learn when you are obligated to break Shabbat to protect life. This is the real wisdom of Torah.
In the Gemara Sanhedrin (74a) the rabbis articulate a hierarchy of Torah values for extreme situations of religious persecution in which enemies try to force us to transgress Torah under threat of death. There are three mitzvot that should never be transgressed under any circumstances: worshipping idolatrously, a forbidden act of intimate physical relations, and murdering another person. For these three sins martyrdom is commanded. For all other mitzvot, the guiding principle is “you should live by them, and not that you should die by them,” and martyrdom is prohibited. But if the religious persecution is occurring in public, defined as in the presence of ten Jews, in order to make a public statement denying Torah, martyrdom is commanded. Maimonides says emphatically that anyone who forfeits their life to do a mitzvah in a situation in which that mitzvah is overruled by the principle of “you should live by them,” is held accountable and guilty for destroying their life (Yesodei HaTorah 5:4).
The point is that Torah mandates a hierarchy of values that requires flexibility for different situations. In the current pandemic, the guiding principle is to practice mitzvot in a way that protects life, not a way that turns Torah mitzvot, and religious rituals or customs that are not mitzvot, into acts of death and murder, Heaven forbid. It should be possible for a clever people to fulfill the mitzvot of Torah, such as learning Torah, or praying, or performing a marriage, in a way that adjusts to the demands of protecting life. If there are leaders and followers who flatten the hierarchy of Torah values and reject any flexibility even if it kills the people around them, we have to wonder if they have turned precious mitzvot of Torah themselves into idolatry and murder, Heaven forbid. They would be accountable and guilty for destroying lives.
So how do we know how to choose life in our approach to Torah? Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg in his Torah commentary gives us a valuable guideline:
הכתב והקבלה דברים פרשת ניצבים פרק ל פסוק יט
ובחרת בחיים למען תחי’. חיי הגוף לבד במלאת מבוקשיו הגשמיים שלא כתורה וכמצוה, הם חיים שאחרי’ מיתה הנפשית, אמנם חיי הגוף שהיא עפ”י התורה והמצוה, הם חיים שאחרי’ חיי הנפש הנצחי וע”ז אמר, ובחרת בחיים למען תחי’ אתה וזרעך, ירצה, איעצך לך ולזרעך לבחור בחיי עוה”ז, שהוא חיי הנוכחי (לכן אמר בחיים בפת”ח) באופן שיסובב ממנו חיים העתידים, והוא חיי עוה”ב. ומבאר אח”ז, איזו היא החיים הנוכחי שאין המיתה אחרי’, אבל נצא ממנו לחיות חיי עד, ע”ז אמר לאהבה וגו’. כי הוא חייך, כלומר זוהי החיים הנוכחי אשר אריכות ימים בעוה”ב כרוך אחרי’, וזה”ש ואורך ימיך.
“And you should choose life, so that you shall live, you and your descendants.” The life of the body alone, fulfilling its needs not in the way of Torah and mitzvah, is life after which there is spiritual death. But life of the body that is according to Torah and mitzvah is life after which there is spiritual life eternal, and regarding this it is “you should choose life, so that you shall live, you and your descendants.” Meaning to say, I advise you and your descendants to choose life in this world, which is present life, in a way that there will result from it the future life, life of the World to Come. And he clarifies after this, what is the present life after which there is no death, that we leave to live eternal life? About this it says [in the verse following]: “To love HaShem your God, to listen to His voice and to adhere to Him, for He is your life and length of your days, to dwell upon the Land that HaShem swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, to give to them.” For He is your life, that is, this is the present life to which length of days in the World to Come is tied…
The Torah life Rabbi Mecklenberg describes is full, robust life lived very much in this world and carrying on beyond this world, lived physically and spiritually according to the true principles of Torah and mitzvot. It is not life diminished by narrow ideas, false fantasies and stiff compulsive behavior. “It is not in heaven (Dt. 30:12),” in a culture out of touch with reality. “It is not across the sea (Dt. 30:13),” in a Ukrainian village cemetery. It is right here, life lived with love and truth, with ethical integrity and spiritual insight, with maturity and responsible care for all others. Moshe Rabbenu pleads with us, Torah pleads with us, HaShem pleads with us: choose life!