Choose life

This Friday is September 11th. This date defines my generation – I was in my early twenties in 2001, and have many vivid memories surrounding the events of that day. If I hadn’t already lived in Israel for the year of ‘95-’96, during which I bore witness to semi-regular Jerusalem bus bombings, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a Lebanon operation called “Grapes of Wrath,” and numerous rocket attacks on Israel from Hezbollah and Hamas, I would probably have reacted very differently to 9/11.

I’m not proud of this, exactly, but mixed in with appropriate measures of grief and fear, I also felt like, “OK, well now maybe Americans will have some small inkling of what it is like to live in Israel every day.” If there is one lesson that Americans could have learned from Israelis in the wake of that tragedy, it is a lesson rooted in this week’s Torah Portion (Nitzavim)–to “choose life.”

Surrounded by hate and terrorism, one of the many miracles of the modern state of Israel is the cultural decision to live full, meaningful lives, in spite of chronic, periodic, life-threatening attacks. Israelis are incredibly committed to this decision, to such an extent that many don’t really consider it a decision at all. Perhaps this is the legacy of the Israelites and the Jewish nation, who are instructed by Moses in the name of God:

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ

הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ

“I call the skies and the earth to witness regarding you today: I’ve put life and death in front of you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life, so you’ll live, you and your seed,”

Deuteronomy 30:19, translation by Richard Elliot Friedman

Just a few verses earlier in Moses’ extensive monologue he makes it clear that God’s commandments are not enigmatic or far away. They are not located in the heavens or the sea, but rather in our mouths and hearts; they are within the ability of humans to fulfill.

This jibes well with choosing life–it is normally not much of a choice, but in hard times, you have to really decide. It is far easier to curl up and go to sleep, hide from the world, run from fears, or give up your freedom when faced with life and death. During the recent war in Gaza, hiding when rocket sirens sounded was necessary. But coming back out, and living life meaningfully, despite that constant threat, couldn’t have been easy.

Perhaps the message here is that our Tree of Life (as the Torah is called) contains wisdom that can help us choose to live meaningfully, particularly when the choices in front of us require courage. At Gesher, we are giving students the tools to access this wisdom, to think critically about it, and then to find ways in which to make it personally meaningful and relevant in their own worlds. That is how we as parents and teachers choose life.

I hope that the memories of 9/11 will lead our society toward life-affirming decisions, and toward peace.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova (Happy New Year),