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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Last time this passage came around, I wrote an essay about the importance of its setting within the context of Moses’ final words to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. This time, I want to focus in a little bit more closely, specifically looking at the well-known phrase in Deuteronomy 30:19: “Choose life.”

Jewish tradition lists 613 commands found throughout the Torah. The injunction here to “choose life” is not one of those traditionally listed because it is in a sense the summation of obeying all the commands. However, a seventeenth century rabbi known as Rabbeinu Yonah taught that the injunction to “choose life” should be viewed as an additional command—the command to choose. [1]

Throughout the Bible, humanity is separated from the beasts by our power to choose. In the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel, sin is described as “crouching at the door,” language evocative of animalistic action. Cain was encouraged to actively choose to resist giving in to his beastly urges. Even at the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, the character of the “beast” plays an important role in the apocalyptic landscape, including placing its “mark” or identity on the forehead of humans. However, we humans are already marked, created in the image of God. The mark of the beast stands in contrast to the mark or identity of God already place upon us. From the beginning of Scripture to the end, the identity or mark of the beast stands in opposition to the identity or mark of God. The imperative throughout is to choose. Which mark will we bear? Will we choose to follow in the footsteps of Cain, to give in to our beastly urges, and so choose violence, death, and destruction? Or will we actively choose life, in contrast to the animalistic instinct towards violence and destruction? This choice will not just happen naturally. We must recognize the “sin that is crouching at the door,” the power of the beast at work in our world today, and we must choose otherwise. It is important to recognize that that choice is always before us—in how we interact with family members and friends, how we live our lives in our workplaces, how we engage online and at the grocery store. There is always an instinct towards self-preservation at the expense of others, violence without concern for the care of the weak among us, a grasping for power and might at the expense of truth and justice. In some settings, these instincts may appear to be deceptively noble, but at the heart, they are nothing more than the basest beastly instinct. In Rabbeinu Yonah’s understanding, the choice itself is the command. We must make the choice. Every day.

The second word in this phrase is “life.” The Old Testament tradition is rich with descriptions of how “life” is imagined in the lives of the people of God. This “life” is not for a few to flourish while others perish. It is not life at the expense of justice so that injustice is overlooked and ignored to allow the powerful to oppress the powerless. The “life” that the Israelites were to choose is kindness and welcome to the foreigner and alien, generosity to the poor, justice for the powerless. Among the people of God, life is for everybody or it is for nobody. According to this passage in Deuteronomy 30, this is also the only path to prosperity. There is no prosperity while some are oppressed, denied justice, and go hungry at our doorstep. The vision for the people of God is not a Monopoly game: winner take all while everyone else is left bankrupt. Either everybody wins or everybody loses.

Recently I attended evening prayers at a Benedictine Monastery. This is not something I often do, so I was carefully watching the Sisters around me to follow their lead. At the end of the prayers, we all sat silently as the monastery bell tolled. I naively thought this was the dinner bell that was announcing we were dismissed to dinner. As we stood up to go, the Sister next to me said, “We sat in silence as the bell tolled today because a man was executed in Florida.” She told me his name, and although I have since forgotten it, it meant something that she remembered and spoke his name aloud. She demonstrated to me a profound commitment to choosing life—for all.

In the Talmudic tradition, there is a concept called pikuach nefesh. The phrase literally means “saving a life.” It is the conviction that the commitment to preserving human life overrides almost any other Torah command.[2] When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, that was an example of the practice of pikuach nefesh. This commitment to life is present in Jewish thought even today. 

When God called Abraham in Genesis 12, God said “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Sometimes our definition of “life” can be too limited. In contrast to the Benedictine practice, it can apply only to those who have not been found guilty of crime. In contrast to Jewish tradition, it can apply only to those who follow every command found in scripture. But both of these traditions demonstrate a commitment to life—in line with God’s promise to Abraham—that means life for “all peoples on earth.” This is a life rich with mercy, justice, and humility. If it is not for everyone, then it is not for anyone.

The Israelites are cautioned, “if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed” (v. 17-18). The “other gods” are the opposite of life, and the opposite of choice. They embody the passive acceptance of beastly urges, a “might makes right” mentality, the powerful becoming more powerful at the expense of the oppressed, a “flourishing life” that is only flourishing for some.

This is still very true in our world today. We live in a violent world. We live in a beastly world. We live in a world that accepts that “life” is only available to a few and denied to many others.

We must still make the choice to actively turn away from the gods around us. We must actively choose to deny the animalistic tendency towards violence, death, and destruction. We must pursue true life that is for all without determining that some (or many) are unworthy of God’s blessing of life. It is only then that we will all flourish, that we will embody God’s words to Abraham that we are blessed to be a blessing, and that we and our children may live. [1] Rabbi Yehoshua Berman, “Choose Life,”  https://www.aish.com/tp/i/reflections/325017951.html, accessed June 27, 2019. [2] ”Pikuach nefesh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pikuach_nefesh, accessed June 27, 2019.

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