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Matters of Life and Death...

Matters of life and death...

Further thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim

by John J. Parsons

In our Torah portion this week (parashat Nitzavim) we note that we are constrained by God to choose either "the blessing or the curse," and that we are not free not to choose, since the LORD God created us to make that very choice... In other words, teshuvah is not optional: we cannot choose not to choose; we cannot "opt out" of our responsibility before God. Every human being faces the holy dilemma, and there is no way to avoid the "either/or" by attempting to somehow unite heaven and hell. Spiritually, we must learn to "choose to choose," since denying the power of our choice (e.g., by rationalizing, blaming others, playing the victim) means repudiating our identity as a soul made in the image of God, and this results in being inwardly "disfigured" and fragmented... Since our life is the expression of our choices, the goal of life is to unify the heart's affections, to consolidate the power of the will, and to freely yield to the truth of God. The so-called "freedom" the world offers is really the freedom from responsibility, that is, the evasion of conviction and abandonment of the truth. Real freedom is the power to choose righteousness rather than to slavishly follow the lusts and fears of the lower nature. This is a miraculous freedom given by Yeshua, who alone gives us authority over the yetzer hara and all the power of the devil (John 8:36; Luke 10:19; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8).

הַעִידתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ
הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ
הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה
וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ

ha·i·do·ti  ba·khem  ha·yom  et  ha-sha·ma·yim  v'et  ha·a·retz
ha·cha·yim  ve·ha·ma·vet  na·tat·ti  le·fa·ne·kha
ha·be·ra·khah  ve·ha·ke·la·lah
u·va·char·ta  ba·cha·yim  le·ma·an  ti·che·yeh  at·tah  ve·zar·e·kha

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that
I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.
Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live"
(Deut. 30:19)


The choice is yours - and yours alone - to make. "See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse..." Note that the expression "before you" (לִפְנֵיכֶם) implies that we have real choice and free will (bechirah chofshit). Belief in free will coheres with the revelation of God's righteousness, since punishment is fitting only when a person has a genuine choice between doing right and wrong. As Abraham said, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Gen. 18:25). Likewise the idea of reward is meaningless if God simply decreed who was to be saintly and who was not. Indeed, the validity of moral choice is implied in the imperatives found in Scripture – "ought implies can." As Yeshua said, "Repent (i.e., shuv: turn to God) - and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15; Rev. 2:5).

Free will is paradoxical in light of God's sovereignty, of course, though the paradox itself is no reason to negate its truth. Most people want to chose either horn of this dilemma (e.g., consider the Calvinism/Arminianism theological controversy), but the truth is that salvation is both about God's sovereignty and your responsibility: "Work out (κατεργάζεσθε) your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you (θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν), both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13). As we believe, so we are given the means to please our LORD and obey His will. Remember who said, "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done" (Rev. 22:12).

We are always choosing, and therefore the Spirit of God says, "I have set before you today life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore bacharta ba'chayim - chose life - that you may live!" This commandment [i.e., choosing life] is not too hard for you; nor is it beyond your reach: it is very near you - as close as your breath and as near as your heart. Therefore turn to God and embrace the message of salvation given in the Messiah Yeshua. There is no other way, and time is running out. Yeshua the Messiah is the LORD (יהוה), the Name above all names, melekh ha-kavod: the King of Glory; the only Wise God our Savior. One day every soul will give account of their choices before Him; then indeed every knee shall bow; every tongue confess the truth...

We must be gentle as we learn how to purposively choose life... Though each of us must make choices, and indeed we are always choosing, alas, we are weak, unfocused, frail, foolish, and in constant need of God's help. Therefore we must extend compassion to others: "Do not hate those who offend you, simply because you have not done the same. If they had your nature, they too might not have sinned; if you were like them, you might have done as they have done" (R' Samuel Kariver). We all have defects of character that are not entirely freely chosen; in light of this, we must show mercy and be quick to forgive others.

    On Judgment Day, I like everyone else, will be allowed to hang all my unhappiness and suffering on a branch of the great Tree of Sorrows. Then, when I have found a limb from which my sorrows can dangle, I will walk slowly around that tree. Do you know what I will do on that walk? I will search for a set of sufferings I might prefer to those I have hung on the tree. But search as I may, I will not find any, and in the end, I will freely choose to reclaim my own personal set of sorrows rather than that of another. I will leave that tree wiser than when I got there, and I will be ready to walk toward the Tree of Life. (Hasidic Tales: Baal Shem Tov).

But be encouraged, chaverim. We are promised great help as we obey the message of Yeshua and walk by faith in God's unfailing love.... Those who are in relationship with the LORD through Yeshua are given the Holy Spirit (רוּחַ הַקּדֶשׁ) in the role of Comforter (παρακλητος), who gives us strength to persevere in the midst of the storms of this life (John 14:26; 15:26). Nonetheless, the central commandment remains: We must continually choose to trust in God's love and grace for our lives, every step of the way. God will never leave you nor forsake you (לא יַרְפְּךָ וְלא יַעַזְבֶךָּ), but He continues to say to those who trust in Him: "Behold, I have stood at the door and knocked. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20). Set the LORD always before you so that you will remain unmoved, chaverim.

Note:  We choose with the heart... "If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one" (William James). In other words, reason is a servant of the will -- of the passions -- and there is nothing more common than to find it employed in the task of excusing the most egregious of human behavior. We see this in politics of all kinds... Therefore it is often useless to argue over moral truth; it is far better to live in God's Presence and let the Spirit manifest divine power through you.

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