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Choose Life

Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

"See I have put before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil. That I am commanding you today to love Hashem your Lord, to go in His ways, and to guard His mitzvos and His statutes and His laws, and you will live and you will become great...And if your heart shall turn away and you will not shall surely be destroyed...I have placed as witnesses against you today the Heavens and the Earth [that] I have put before you the life and the death, the blessing and the curse, and you shall choose life in order that you shall live and your offspring (Devarim 30:15-19)."

Rabbeinu Yonah counts this injunction as a positive mitzvah to choose that which is good, and categorizes it as one of the lofty levels of human achievement and distinction.[1]

At first glance, this statement of Rabbeinu Yonah seems very difficult to understand.

God commands us to not do certain things and to do certain things, and promises us reward if we fulfill His will and punishment if we don't, God forbid. Obviously, this fact - as the Rambam writes[2] - assumes that we have the free will to decide whether or not to listen to Him.

As such, in what sense can "you shall choose life" be counted as a separate, independent mitzvah? Isn't "you shall choose life" just encouraging and urging us to carry out that which the rest of the Torah has already commanded us? Certainly, if not for Rabbeinu Yonah's statement, we would have understood it as general, rousing words of mussar and not another, separate mitzvah.

Furthermore, how are we to understand that free will is a lofty spiritual level? Isn't our free will simply a fact of our existence? Hashem created us with free will so that it should be up to us to decide whether or not to listen to Him, and thereby be able to receive our ultimate reward (or otherwise, God forbid). So how then is this inherent function of our existence to be understood as a lofty level?

Rabbeinu Yonah is clearly saying that "you shall choose life" is a mitzvah to be a chooser, a man (or woman, for that matter) of will. How, though, are we to understand this?

The first thing we need to consider in approaching this topic is the fact that the defining factor of the human being - that which makes him completely unique and different from every other creation - is his capacity of free will. It is this capacity that makes his actions meaningful, empowers him with responsibility, and enables him to be commanded to do good and stay away from evil and thereby merit the eternal reward in Olam Ha'bah.

It is crucial to understand, then, precisely how this uniqueness and difference from all the other created beings in the universe expresses and manifests itself.

When a cow meanders over to a given patch of grass to have a nice munch, it may very well be making some sort of decision as to which patch of grass looks the most delectable, where there is more shade, etc. Certainly, when it comes to the more intelligent animals in the world, they definitely seem to have a certain capacity for such decision-making. Humans as well can be found to be engaging in this type of "decision-making". For example, how many times can we be found agonizing over what to eat for lunch or dinner? And, truth be told, there is really no difference in substance between that type of decision-making and when one contemplates which vacation resort to go to for his vacation, which car to buy, etc.

Obviously, this form of decision-making is not that which characterizes the power of choice and the uniqueness of the human being.

It must be, as the verse explicitly states, the choice between good and evil that manifests the true human power of free will.

This cannot be coincidental, though. There must be some very real difference in substance that differentiates between the former type of decision-making and the latter.

The first difference, as Rav Yaakov Weinberg explained, is that the former is not meaningful whereas the latter is. The former is in relation to ephemeral pleasures that have no lasting significance whereas the latter pertains to the ultimate and infinite meaning of and realization of the purpose of all of creation.

It is only reasonable, though, that, in addition to the relative significance of the particular subject of the decision, there is also a very real difference in the essence of the very act of decision making as well. In other words, the particular faculty that is being employed in the decision-making process between good and evil is not at all the same faculty as that which is being employed when one makes animalistic decisions of "what is the easiest/most enjoyable."

It is not mere coincidence that all other creatures do not have the opportunity to choose between good and evil and only the human being does. The specific, human faculty and power of choice is absolutely unique.

This uniqueness is understood as follows. All the "decisions" of animals are purely a matter of instinct - pre-programmed directions, if you will - of how to proceed and react in any given situation. The cow is drawn to the most delicious-looking patch of grass as a result of its instinct to satisfy its hunger in the most pleasurable manner possible. A deer immediately runs away at the slightest hint of danger as a result of its instinct to avoid being killed by a predator. And so on and so forth. Other animals may have a decision to make between "fight or flight", but that decision is purely a function of their inborn, survival instinct and therefore not at all an act of free choice.

None of the decisions of animals are conscious acts of will; rather they are all an act of submission to the dictates of its inborn instincts.

With the human being, however, that is not the case at all. The human being possesses that unique capacity to exercise willpower. He has the ability to weigh relative values, assess the moral implications of a situation and course of action, and to overcome the natural urge to follow the path of least resistance for the sake of doing what is right and what is good.

Being a chooser, then, means to be in control of oneself - to not blindly follows one's natural desires and base instincts, to not simply go with the flow and do whatever comes easiest or provides one with the most pleasure; to not allow oneself to react to situations with the basically-automatic responses of the inborn characteristics of his personality. Rather, he exercises his power of will by maturely assessing each and every situation with conscious awareness, and, with level-headed and well-informed intellect, he decides what is the right and good thing to do and proceeds accordingly. Not because that is easiest, and not because that is what makes him feel the best at the given moment, but because that is what is true and right.[3] The chooser will overcome his natural desires, urges, and character-traits, if necessary, in order to carry out the directives of his intellect.

It is possible for a person to not violate any mitzvos but still not be functioning as a chooser. Take, for example, someone who was raised in a pure environment of fear of God wherein from his very infancy he was trained to keep the Torah perfectly. It is very possible that this individual's functioning could be a matter of always taking the path of least resistance. Given his situation, functioning in such a non- chooser manner may very well not bring him to violate any mitzvos, at least not for a very significant portion part of his life.

Even people who live in less pure environments - environments that generally demand using their power of choice in order to avoid violating Hashem's mitzvos - have innumerable opportunities to theoretically allow their concerted-effort-requiring faculty of choice to slip into temporary dormancy and function with the animalistic faculty of "whatever is most pleasurable/easiest" without causing them to violate mitzvos. A few examples include when deciding what line of work to go into, in which particular neighborhood to live, and what type of a car to drive. These are just a sampling of decisions that one could either make on automatic-animalistic mode, which would not necessarily cause him to violate any mitzvah, or could be made in chooser mode wherein one makes these decisions based on a sense of values and positive direction influenced by positive character traits.[4]

Even within the realm of the "textbook" mitzvos, there is so much room for either activating our faculty and power of choice or not. Which Shul we daven in, how long we spend on our teffilos and brachos, how we say them, the specific approach we take in learning Torah, how we put on our teffilin, how we cook and eat our Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, and essentially every single mitzvah that we do, can either be a kind of automatic-pilot act of just going with the flow and following the path of least resistance, or can be done with the conscious awareness, thoughtfulness, and deliberation that characterizes the chooser.

The mitzvah "you shall choose life" enjoins us to function as a chooser - to take the reins of life firmly in hand and be in control of ourselves. It empowers us to live in a conscious manner wherein deliberate decisions between good and evil, right and wrong, better or worse, good or even better, (and even bad or not as bad) characterize how we approach life; and not just go through life following the automatic-pilot path of least resistance, ease and pleasure seeking.

Indeed, the level of a chooser is one of the loftiest heights to which man can aspire.[5]

"And you shall choose life in order that you should live, you and your offspring."


1. See in Shaarei Teshuva,Sha'ar 3, Os 17, "And know that the higher traits were given in a positive commandment, like the trait of free choice, as it says 'And you shall choose life.' " and see further.

2. Hilchot Teshuva 5:4.

3. It is important to note that at times what is the right thing to do may also happen to be the easier, more desirable, or more pleasant course of action. That aspect of the decision, though, for the Baal Bechira is not the primary factor. Rather, the primary factor is what is the right, good thing to do. The fact, though, that a certain course of action may be more difficult or naturally less desirable does not automatically mean that that must be the right thing to do. At the same time, it is important when one is faced with decisions wherein one course of action is clearly more naturally desirable and/or convenient than the other, to make the effort to move beyond that automatic bias in order to enable oneself to make the right decision objectively.

4. For example, one could decide which line of work to enter based solely on selfish, financial considerations or he could heavily take into consideration which line of work will enable him to benefit others the most, or how much time it will afford him to spend with his family, etc. The former is not functioning as a Baal Bechira as opposed to the latter who may possibly be functioning as Baal Bechira.

5. It is important to note that a madreigah, by definition, means that one cannot all of a sudden achieve it in one fell swoop and overnight become a prototypical Baal Bechira. It is a process, as with any other madreigah, that requires approaching its achievement in a slow, mature and level-headed, step-by-small-step way. Therefore, depending at which stage of the process one is holding, there will certainly be a necessity for to allow oneself to relax from exercising the bechira "muscle" from time to time. Those closer to the beginning of the road may even need to relax from the "exercise" the majority of the time (of course, assuming that this will not cause them to violate halacha). The main thing is to go about it in reasonable manner that will not cause one to fall apart from exertion that is beyond one's current capability level.



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