הַֽעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַֽחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ בַּֽחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּֽחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ
Ha’idoti va’khem ha’yom et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz: ha’khayim v’ha’mavet natati l’fanekha, ha’brakhah v’ha’klalah. u’vakharta ba’khayim, l’ma’an tikhyeh atah v’zarekha.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah. I praise the wisdom of our sages, who carefully calibrated the calendar so that these words would prime us for the New Year. It is Moses’ final oration (although a coda of an epic poem and a blessing will follow) and ends with the stirring call that has come to define the Jewish character, and especially this season of the Jewish year: Choose life. Moses’ words are so timeless that I feel he could be delivering them in our synagogues today.
Moses makes clear that he is speaking across the generations, addressing every single individual — from the leaders to the woodchoppers; men, women and children; and even those who are not yet present to hear him speak (Deuteronomy 29:9–14). He calls us to do תְּשׁוּבָה teshuvah, to return to God, to our people, to our land (Deuteronomy 30:1–5). He calls us to open our hearts, “to love the Source of Life with all of your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 30:6). He insists that this change of heart is possible, and that we do not need intermediaries to accomplish it:
Surely, this teaching which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your own mouth and in your own heart, that you may do it. See, I set before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil (Deuteronomy 30:11–15).
Moses asserts that we are capable of change. He insists that we are capable of opening our hearts, of choosing life and goodness, no matter how far we have strayed from our goal: “Even if you are scattered at the ends of the world, from there YHVH will gather you, and bring you back” (Deuteronomy 30:4).
Moses is being the ultimate spiritual teacher here at the end of his teaching. He is telling us that our self-limiting beliefs are keeping us from fully participating in the unfolding of creation. This Torah, this teaching, is not in heaven or across the sea. It is close to you, on your own lips and in your own heart. You can do it! I feel Moses’ sense of urgency as he exhorts us, his people, to enter the Promised Land — the land of human fulfillment. Our noble task is to expand our sense of the possible. We are to do teshuvah, and align our beliefs about ourselves with our true and magnificent potential. We are to choose life and aliveness so that, as Moses says, we and our descendants may live long upon the good earth that the Creator has granted to us.
This is the message of the High Holy Days. This is the message of Judaism.
We aim to give up our acquired habit of powerlessness — the idea that we cannot change — and, trembling at times, crack open the door or the window again to new possibilities, and let the breeze rush into our closed room. We aim to open our hearts, even if that means opening ourselves to uncertainty and pain. We aim to come home — to ourselves, to our community, to life and aliveness. From wherever we have wandered or felt exiled.
I love that Moses calls heaven and earth as witnesses to this moment, as if to say, we are not separate from creation. The whole world is watching, as it were, waiting for us to fulfill our part. The life energy that animates all of creation also animates us. One day that energy will carry each of us out of our individuality, and our essence will rejoin and mingle with the earth and sky. That will be the day of our death. But now, Moses asks heaven and earth to witness us — each of us empowered to be a conduit for love, righteousness, courage and transformation. We matter. The Baal Shem Tov taught that Divine sparks are hidden and trapped throughout creation, waiting to be liberated, and that every single person has their own unique set of Divine sparks waiting for them to reveal and uplift. No one else can fulfill the noble task of being you. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The challenge I face is how to actualize the quiet eminence of my being.”
Yes, it is a challenging time. We can list the reasons to despair. Then again, when have times not been challenging? No matter, says Moses, the potential for change is still in our hands.
Speaking across the ages, Moses still has an audience for his words each time we begin another New Year: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!”