Living The Messy Life


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:35 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 29:9-31:30 p.m.
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Havdalah: 7:32 p.m.

Because it immediately precedes Rosh HaShanah, this week’s portion inevitably evokes introspection, especially with its call to “choose life, if you want to live.”

Why wouldn’t we want to live? To be sure, moments of depression (which, for some, are more than just moments) can blind us to appreciating life. But those of us spared depression automatically choose to live, don’t we? Why would the Torah tell us the obvious?

One answer lies in God’s insistence on summoning heaven and earth to witness the warning. What meaning can modern readers find in “heaven and earth?”

Our ancestors saw them as two actual places, a “down here” and an “up there.” Modern cosmology, however, makes it difficult to accept that view. We need a metaphysical, not a physical, interpretation, such as the one suggested by Abravanel’s distinction between “willing” and “choosing.”

“Willing” refers to ultimate goals, the idealized ends of which we can only dream. With all our heart we “will” something to be the case, even though we can never realistically hope to have it. “Choosing” refers to real-life options, which necessarily fall short of the perfected ends that make up our “will.” What we “will” is heaven. What we “choose” is earth. When we choose life we must choose among the competing alternatives that earth, not heaven, offers. Choosing life is difficult, then, because life is, by nature, flawed. It is never the sum total of what we really crave.

Just before God calls on heaven and earth as witnesses, God promises that choosing life will give us blessing “in the land you are about to enter.” Here is another biblical term that demands modern interpretation — what can “entering the land” mean for us who live millennia after the conquest of Canaan and have no aspirations to enter any land other than our own.

Like “heaven and earth,” “the land” too was originally a real place. But chasidic tradition sees “the land” as a metaphor for the internal landscape of our lives in process as we make the journey from birth to death. Choosing life, then, results in blessing not in some far-off piece of geography but in the land that is life’s journey — a journey made on earth not in heaven. The Torah “is not in heaven,” the sedra further explains [Deuteronomy 30:12]. Heaven is the habitat for angels, not for us. If you want to live, choose life: life on “the land,” life on earth.

Judaism’s passionate affirmation of realistic choices contradicts our society’s usual notion of religion as an ethereal heavenly thing. The “real world,” we think, consists of the messy tasks of law, business, and the everyday. But the most important Jewish work beyond the Bible is the Talmud, which is nothing if not a running commentary on those selfsame messy tasks. The only life we have — and the one that Rosh HaShanah calls us to choose — is messy, because it is lived on earth, not in heaven.

We should not begin a new year with unreal expectations. We can attempt to restore relationships gone bad, but not pretend they will be perfect. We can make peace with our failures but not imagine we are immune to further failure. We can resolve to abandon destructive behavior, but even the best intentioned resolutions will not prevent us from at least being tempted to revisit the same old patterns. We can clean up our lives but should not expect them to be immaculate.

Life will always be messy because it is part and parcel of a universe governed by entropy. We are, at best, in the salvage business, regularly cleaning up our lives and restoring temporary sanity to a personal world that is inherently unstable, incomplete, and imperfect. But as messy as it is, life is a blessing. Only fools, our sedra says, imagine they can evade choosing life properly but still be subject to blessing [Deut. 29:18]. The fools in question are said to be “willful sinners” who purposely disobey God’s commandments. But people are generally not so evil. They may be willful sinners only in Abravanel’s terms: mistaking “will” for “choice,” they refuse to choose life because they yearn only for the perfect not for the possible. They choose the tidy ideals of heaven over the messy realities of earth, as if heaven were a matter of choice in the first place. The only thing we have, however, is earth, and are sedra urges us to take advantage of it.

Welcome to a new year, not in heaven but on earth. “Choose life,” on earth, “if you want to live.”

 Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “All These Vows—Kol Nidre” (Jewish Lights).