The Importance of Being Earnest
Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31 )
Some of the most powerful verses in the entire Five Books of Moses are in this week's Torah portion. The way the Jewish calendar is set up, we always read this Parsha right before Rosh Hashana. Consequently, we go into Rosh Hashana and face the Day of Judgment with these inspiring words still ringing in our ears.
"For this commandment that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, to say, 'Who can ascend to heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?' Nor is it across the sea, to say, 'Who can cross to the other side of the sea and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?' Rather the matter is very near to you - in your mouth and in your heart to perform it." (Deut. 30, 11-14)
According to Nachmanides the commandment referred to in the passage is the commandment to do teshuva, "return to God" or "repent"; this is the commandment that is stated immediately prior to this passage "when you shall return to YHVH your God, with all your heart and all your soul" (Ibid., 10)
It would seem that the Torah is informing us that teshuva is very near and accessible. But is it really? If so, why haven't we all done it? Why are we facing Rosh Hashana desperately attempting to make ourselves feel the urgency of doing teshuva? Is there something the matter with us?
God goes on to explain:
"See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances ... But if your heart will stray and you will not listen, and you prostrate yourself to strange gods and serve them ..." (Deut. 30:15-20)
In other words, the reason that teshuva is so near is that observance is tantamount to "life and the good," whereas non-observance is equal to "death and evil." Surely, anyone faced with having to choose between such clear alternatives as life and death, or good and evil will be able to make his selection without experiencing much inner torment. If we felt the equation between "life and the good" and "death and the evil" and repentance, then repentance would indeed be very near and accessible.
If it is not, that is because the correlation between observance and life is not so obvious and clear to us. We are not existentially sensitive to such an equation. But if we cannot feel the equation, is there at least a way we can relate to it intellectually? Why is Torah observance equivalent to life and good, and how is a life of non-observance congruent with evil and death? Perhaps an intellectual appreciation could serve as a first step towards the integration of this correlation presented by God into our emotional consciousness.
But it will not suffice to unearth the correlation between life and Torah observance if we have to arrive at it by referring to obscure and esoteric Torah passages. In order to take advantage of the inspiration offered by God's words, as He clearly intended us to do, we must demonstrate that these correlations that He draws in His message to us are glaringly obvious; all human beings can plainly appreciate them, even if they refer to the information that is already in their possession. After all, if we paraphrase God's statement in this passage according to Nachmanides' interpretation, He is saying in effect: "You yourself know the correlation between Torah observance and life, and therefore it should be obvious to you that you should choose life!"
THE OBVIOUS TRUTH
When we look around our world we are faced with a startling phenomenon that should give us all pause. What would happen to our world if only the people whose old car broke down went out and purchased a new one? If no person with a good suit in his closet would feel the compulsion to buy a new one even if the fashions have changed? What if people would choose to live in houses that only contained the amount of rooms that they actually needed to use? In short, what if we would only purchase items that were true necessities?
We all know the answer. If people started to behave this way the inevitable result would be instant world-wide economic deflation. The world as we know it would collapse entirely. Companies would have to cut their production and downsize, throwing millions out of work. The people who lost their jobs could no longer keep up their mortgage payments and would lose their homes. Everyone would be forced to withdraw his or her savings, causing the immediate collapse of the world banking system.
The snowball effect would reach into all areas of the economy in ways that are totally obvious to anyone who ever took an elementary economics course, and even farther. The lack of extra money would mean that we could no longer afford to subsidize education or invest any money in scholarship and research. The advances in science and technology that stretch the frontiers of human knowledge and allow us to constantly increase productivity would also come to a halt.
Indeed, our world has actually experienced precisely such a catastrophe. When the Roman Empire collapsed the world actually did come to a stop. It took 500 years for mankind to work itself out of what are known today as the Dark Ages. So why aren't we worried about history repeating itself? How can we be so confident that people will continue to lead the lives of conspicuous consumption that drives our demand-driven economy and makes our civilization possible?
LOOKING WITHIN OURSELVES
The answer is simple: we all know that the life of consumption will continue by studying ourselves. We know that people will keep consuming because they have the same drives as we do. And we know that we ourselves will continue spending money, because if we don't spend our money what will we have to live for?
Why else do we live? To work? Surely not! Work is something we must do to survive, not something we want to do. Of course there is the odd person who lives for his work, or is driven by great idealistic zeal, but judging by the numbers of such people that we encounter we can safely conclude that there aren't enough of them around to be able to upset the economy. So if not work, what do we live for?
The answer: we live to fill our lives with pleasure and sensation, to experience the thrill of being alive. The thrill of feeling alive comes in many forms and they all involve spending money: the thrill of a new car, a new house, a trip to an exotic place, the thrill of shopping. Engagement in these activities also solves the problem of staving off boredom for long periods of time; they all require intensive research, preparation and planning to make sure you get the best deal. After all it is important to make sure that you get the most for your money.
It isn't that we fool ourselves about the size of the return these activities afford us in exchange for our hard earned money. We are all perfectly aware how transitory the thrill that is produced by these activities really is. We know how quickly it evaporates and how rapidly the problem of contending with boredom sets in again. But, we have nothing else to substitute that is worth living for. And the thrills are not illusory; they are really there while they last.
What about significance? Do we think any of these activities are important? Do we think that any of them make a difference in the long run? Not really. Indeed, do we think our lives themselves are important except to ourselves? Not really. We are born to die, just as all those before us have died and just as all those after us will die. As we only live for such a short time, our only option is to keep ourselves stimulated with new experiences and adventures, to experience the thrill of being alive while it lasts. This is the human condition.
The real quest of our lives is avoidance. We are busy avoiding starvation, failure, boredom, and most of all, the awareness of approaching death. We are fully cognizant of lack of significance and importance of our pleasures and our thrills, but it is only through immersing ourselves in them that we can avoid all the negatives that constantly threaten to engulf us in their embrace.
That is why God can safely make the claim that what He is offering is near and accessible. God is saying, "I am offering you something better than a life that is dedicated to avoiding the unpleasant by engaging in the insignificant. Your life can be important! Don't settle for a negative life. If the activities of your life are meaningful only in so far as they help you to avoid boredom and to escape the feeling that you are dying, you are really dedicating your life to death. Why not live positively? Why not live to be alive instead of living to avoid death?"
THE PURPOSE OF OBSERVANCY
Let us look at the purpose of observing the commandments. They offer no thrills. Some of them are quite boring. Even as one is busily engaged in them, one is often fighting off boredom and distraction. They are not in themselves absorbing; it takes a great deal of work to become absorbed in them. They are clearly not designed to deliver thrills.
On the other hand, they aren't exactly like work either. Work is obviously necessary for physical survival: if you don't work, you don't eat; the observance of the commandments is not. There is no obvious connection between their performance and one's state of well-being in the natural world. But if they aren't necessities of survival and they offer no thrills, the only possible reason to perform them must be because they are important.
But why are they important?
LIVING AS A SOUL
Suppose you woke up one morning and decided that you would like to conduct your day as a soul instead of just a body. You would like to get out of thinking of yourself as a transitory being stretching its wings for a brief period like some glorified monarch butterfly before disappearing for good. You want to live forever.
What would you do as a soul? How would you live? What would you do with your time?
Some things are fairly obvious. You would dedicate yourself to being helpful to your fellow man; you would attempt to bring cheer and happiness to the world. But how would you buy your suits as a soul? What kind of car would you drive? What kind of house would you live in, and what kind of vacation, if any, would you plan? How would you eat and drink as a soul, how would you educate your children or fill your empty hours? You would have no answer to any of these questions. Neither you nor anyone else has any self-knowledge as a soul.
This is why we need the Torah's commandments. We need a body of knowledge to teach us how to conduct our lives as souls. There is nothing surprising in this. Even to live successfully as bodies we need much education. We need to go to school to learn how to read, to high school and even to university to truly open all of life's possibilities, even if we plan to live only as bodies. It is certainly no less complicated to exist as a soul; a successful soul-life should require at least as many information inputs as a successful body-life.
This is the information that God offers us in the Torah. If we learn to observe the commandments, we learn to conduct ourselves as souls just as though we were self conscious as souls and really knew how to behave as souls. In fact, the Torah offers even more. Through learning it and living it we really do become self conscious as souls. We learn to think, speak, and behave as souls. We learn to conduct all of life's activities in a spiritual way. We replicate all the experiences we have that teach us to be fully self aware as bodies!
THE ENDLESS LIFE OF A SOUL
Souls live forever. Forever is a long time. Imagine that we were offered the opportunity to live forever as we are. Do any of us seriously think that we could keep ourselves stimulated through eternity by living lives that are based on the pursuit of thrills? If we have such a difficult time keeping ourselves stimulated and feeling alive during the brief span of years that we spend here on earth, how much more difficult would this become if we lived longer, much less forever.
A life without Torah is only suitable for someone who is planning to die in the not too distant future. If life isn't too long, we are creative enough to just barely fill it with enough interesting experiences to maintain our appreciation of it. But if you stretched this sort of life much further it would surely run out of steam.
But why is all this important now, today? Why can't we put off worrying about this problem until after we die? Just as we are taught to live as bodies only after we are born, surely we could wait to be taught to live as souls after we die. Why can't each life take care of itself?
At last we can appreciate the immediacy of God's message. No one has two lives. There is only one life. You live the life you teach yourself to live. You can either learn how to live forever now or you can plan to die. To know how to live forever we need to learn how to live as souls today - and this education is only available through the observance of the commandments of the Torah. The life we learn to live without the commandments is only suitable for someone who plans to live for only a relatively short time and then die, and if this is all we learn this is all we get. This is what God is telling us exactly.
The message is neither obscure nor esoteric. None of the the ideas contained in this essay are profound. They are obvious and clear to all human beings of average intelligence without exception. We all know them. There is nothing profound or hidden here. As God promised, the message is truly 'not up in the heavens or over the oceans.'
But there is a sharp, painful jab to the heart contained in the message. God tells us that He has placed all this before us "today." We cannot wait until we are born again as souls. We are souls already. We have to make this choice now, today. Whatever we choose is final. We can fit into the life of souls right here by living like people who plan to live forever, or we can choose to live our lives in a fashion that is only sustainable for people who will die after their brief moment of glory in the sun and then we will duly die.
WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT
So why is this such a difficult choice for most of us?
The natural life of the body is brief but chock full of sensation. It may not be very important but it is quite stimulating while it lasts. The other life, that of the soul, is important but boring. We are told that it will become exciting when we leave the body but that doesn't help us to feel the thrill of such a life in the here and now.
Right now such a life is based on giving up sensation. It requires a person to live according to the dictates of pure reason and often suppress and ignore his feelings and emotions. The contest may be between the important and everlasting, and the insignificant and transitory, but it is also between sensation and stimulation and discipline and thought.
In our day and age, this is even more complicated. When these words were first spoken to the Jewish people by our teacher Moses, they were addressed to those who had experienced both lifestyles as insiders. The people to whom Moses was speaking had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. In all of human history, there were never again people who had such a clear taste of living life as souls as the people of Moses' original audience.
All of us are born non-observant. The first taste of life in our mouths is always the taste of the life of sensation. Most Jews who are alive today have never had any other taste. They never had the opportunity to taste Torah life from the inside. When such Jews look at a life of observance they can only see what they would be giving up; they have no clear idea of what they would be gaining.
The solution to this dilemma is provided by the need to face judgment.
The reason this Torah portion is read immediately before Rosh Hashana is that the solution to the dilemma of what life is about is the easiest to resolve when it comes up for renewal. At such a time we are to look at it from the outside with some objectivity. For the moment life does not yet belong to us; it must be renewed by God for another year in order for us to get it back. We do not have to let it go, it is gone from us anyway until it is returned. We can therefore weigh it and judge it.
The Torah was given to all Jews - observant and non-observant alike. God promised to place this choice between life and death and good and evil in front of all of us, no matter the level of our observance, and He promised to do it "today" when we are still alive to be able to make the choice. The day of Rosh Hashana is the "today" of the passage. God designed the day to make us aware of the choice and what is at stake. Any Jew can take advantage of it.
If you wish to taste the choice of "life and death" and "good and evil," the day is there for you no matter what level of observance you are presently on. You only have to join the service to experience its nearness and accessibility. "Rather, the matter is very near to you - in your mouth and in your heart to perform it." The Torah is eternal and its message speaks to all of us. Rosh Hashana really works if you let it. Alternative ways of facing judgment are bound to be more painful.