Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil…(Deut. 30:15)

Doing good is a choice, but it is not limited to acts of beneficence, it also means that you see the good in your life, health, family, friendships, sustenance and so many other blessings that many people overlook. We choose whether we will feel entitled or blessed. An extreme example of how we choose to view life is seen in the following story.

During WW II a Rabbi known as the Chuster Rav found an empty barrack and invited anyone who wanted to join him for Kol Nidrei. No one had a Machzor (prayer book) and there were obviously no Torah scrolls to hold. He would recite the prayers by heart and everyone else would listen. Before he began Kol Nidrei, he began to speak.

“The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b) says that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the books of life and the books of death are opened before the Almighty. Why, he asked, does it say “books” and not “book?” Isn’t there one book for those who will merit life and another for those who don’t?”

The Chuster Rav looked out at those emaciated Jews; broken souls who had gathered with him to pray. He said, “I’ll tell you why, because there is not (just) one way to live and one way to die. You can live with freedom and prosperity, or you can live in a concentration camp and be tortured, beaten, and forced to work. You can die at an old age in your bed surrounded by family, or you can die in a gas chamber. You can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, or you can be burnt in a crematorium. [“Live” has many variations and so does “die.”]

“Let us say Kol Nidrei,” he told them, “and pray that we not only merit life, but that we merit a real life, a life outside of this camp, and that if we must die, that we merit a dignified death and a proper Jewish burial.”

Although it has been over 75 years since WW II, the idea he mentioned still exists; there are various forms of life. Some people sleepwalk through life. Their priorities are so misaligned that even though they have the physical and mental capacity to enjoy life, their contorted priorities make it that they are miserable. But there are other people who manage to do so much good and make opportunities available for others, that they live on in people’s collective memory to the degree that, in a certain way, they still live. A dedicated teacher might have made such an impact on students that some of them decide to become teachers. A nurse might have been so kind that she inspired others to become nurses. Regarding parents, I once heard a Rabbi begin a class by mentioning it was his mother’s yahrzeit; he wanted to dedicate the night’s learning to her. He said, “All that I am or ever will be is because of her.” She had created a living monument loyal to the ideals and values for which she had lived. 

You will make many choices this year but one of the most important of them will be how you see your future. Is it bleak? That means that your life at present is also bleak. Do you see a bright future, one that involves quality relationships and living for more than just your own needs and desires? If so, then no matter how dismal things appear now, your optimistic attitude will carry you through. You choose how you view life, and that choice will directly affect your peace of mind and help you deal with life on life’s terms.

The following story illustrates this point. It involved the Chuster Rav, mentioned in the story above, and has been related by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, who heard it directly from his wife’s grandfather, the protagonist of the story. 

“When I was in the concentration camp, I didn’t tip my cap properly to an SS guard who walked by, not out of rebellion but because I didn’t notice him. It didn’t matter; the guard beat me senseless.” (In fact, he became blind in one eye as a result.)

“I returned to the barrack, broken, despondent, and in incredible physical and emotional pain. I was ready to give up. I decided that that night I would leave this World. But in the same barrack was the Chuster Rav. He saw how hopeless I was, and he stayed up the entire night giving me words of encouragement. He told me that if I made it through the night, he would give me a blessing that I would survive, and while Hitler and the Nazis would become a distant memory, I would live a long life and merit to see children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who were Torah observant.

A single blessing is what gave a man strength to not only to live but to choose to build a family and new life after the war. This Monday night begins the ten-day period culminating with Neila, the emotional climax of Yom Kippur. Let’s use these ten days as opportunities to pray not only for life, but also for a life of good decisions, a life of being positive even if negative things or challenges come your way. May we remember that there’s not a book of life, there are “books” of life. We might not have a choice of which book comes our way, but we do choose how we will read it.

Sara and I wish you and your family a sweet and happy new year. May you be inscribed in the book of life, blessing, peace, and good livelihood.

Good Shabbos/Shana Tova