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Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Choosing to Be the Good in Life

By Jane E. Herman

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Writing about this week’s double Torah portion, NitzavimVayeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30) , during a global pandemic, I might easily have chosen to focus on the glut of curses surrounding us: a new, still mysterious virus, fear of illness, nearly 6.8 million cases and the death of close to 191,000 Americans, lack of a vaccine, economic devastation, confinement to our homes, social distancing, and more. The list seems endless as the months tick by.

Even amidst the curses, though, we are a life-affirming people. After all, don’t we, week after week, raise our cups to recite the kiddush and offer a hearty “L’chaim!” (“To life!”) before the first sip of wine that reminds us of Shabbat’s sweetness and all that is good in life? More than merely a reminder of the goodness around us, that sip can remind us to be the good.

According to Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla from the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco:

When the Torah states that God puts life and death before us, our tradition is not telling us to decide whether to live or die, but that every choice we make from birth to death matters. These choices range from how we treat our loved ones to how we spend money; from whom we bring into our world view, to how we choose our food. In each of these choices, we should choose life.

Read on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah (and again, in part, on Yom Kippur morning in Reform congregations), Nitzavim also encourages us to review the choices we made throughout the closing year and consider those we will strive to make in the New Year. As Rabbi Jonathan Kligler writes:

[E]ach of us [is] 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.”

As we prepare to stand together as a community during the upcoming High Holiday season—differently, no doubt, given the pandemic—Rabbi Janet B. Liss urges that “we think about the choices we can make to insure the future of the Torah and the Jewish people. May the choices we make lead to God’s blessings.”

L’shana tova and l’chaim!

Jane E. Herman is the senior writer at JCC Association of North America. Email her at j.herman@jcca.org.

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