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Choosing Life, When it feels like we don't have choices

09/24/2023 01:34:33 PM


Gut Yontif and Boker Tov. I hope you are all managing well through the first arc of our long fast together. This day can be hard for many of us in different ways. The Torah tells us that this day we should practice self-affliction, which the ancient rabbis later interpreted to mean fasting, as well as abstaining from a number of earthly pleasures. However, even they allowed for leniencies, and not just in cases of life-and-death. While one of the prescribed abstinences for this day is bathing, a bride may wash herself because she should continue to feel radiant for the full thirty days after her wedding. But she is still commanded to refrain from wearing leather on this day. For each of us, we must make our choices on what constitutes sufficient affliction to purify our souls and brings us the spiritual catharsis of this day, without putting ourselves into so much pain that we are unable to concentrate on the prayers or commune with one another and the Divine.

The Torah portion we read this morning tells us that God has “set before us life and good, or death and evil.” If we uphold Jewish values, do justice and walk humbly in the path of the Uniting Spirit of the Universe, we are choosing life and good. But if we behave selfishly and harden our hearts, if we turn away from our people and our principles, we are choosing death and evil. God commands us to “Choose Life.” Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Spanish rabbi, tells us that “life” and “blessing” are synonymous here, as are “death” and “curse”. Richard Elliott Friedman, a contemporary American theologian, expands on this: “The focus at the conclusion of the Torah returns us to the Torah's opening: the loss of the tree of life. Humans lose access to the tree of life as the price of having gained access to the tree of knowledge of good and bad. Now the people are told, "I've put in front of you life and good, blessing and curse." Using the knowledge of good and bad, and choosing to do good is the path back to life—not necessarily eternal life (though who knows?), but meaningful life, fulfilling life.”

What does it mean to live and to create a meaningful and fulfilling life? Torah gives us one answer, which we may read at a surface level: Fulfill the commandments. Do good deeds, build Jewish communities, seems simple enough. But of course, it isn’t. Some of the commandments the Torah is talking about in this morning’s readings are not accessible anymore, or our modern sensibilities can no longer accept them as they had been previously interpreted. Some parts of the Torah contradict others and so it can be hard to know what is truly “God’s Will.” But the whole point of the commandment to Choose Life, is that God’s will is sort of immaterial. God has instilled in us free will, and humanity has eaten of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, and now we must learn to trust our instinctive conscience and make active choices to do good, to choose life, to build resilient Jewish communities.

And that is certainly not always easy. A resilient community takes care of each other even if there are members within it who don’t get along. A resilient community respects one another’s differences, works together to create strong ties, and welcomes those seeking community. Communities must have boundaries, must know what their values are and what threatens those values or the sanctity of the space, without gatekeeping and operating on prejudice. This difficult balance can show itself in myriad ways, but one is certainly the question of bodily autonomy within a religious organization.

As Jews, the assumption for Yom Kippur is that people fast if they can, and if they can’t, they must have a medical reason for it. For the most part, I think we don’t impose on others around this issue, and many people in the congregation don’t know who outside of their family is fasting or not, let alone why. As non-Orthodox Jews, most of us do probably bathe on Yom Kippur, and even if you happened to be sitting next to someone who you suspected maybe didn’t shower this morning, you probably wouldn’t say anything rude to that person. This is just a part of how American Jews have assimilated our traditions and the common etiquette of the society around us.

Then there are questions about other people’s bodies that are perhaps more unusual or newer in our current makeup of society, and so the etiquette around such topics has not had an opportunity to take hold. When mask mandates were withdrawn, there were tensions between those who still masked and those who didn’t. There were questions and assumptions about why people make the choices they did for their masking or not masking. It could be seen through the lens of Professor Friedman’s commentary on the parasha: what are the choices that lead us to meaningful and fulfilling lives? Some people feel that masking, which might also mean avoiding eating with people outside of your pod, making yourself more difficult to be heard or understood by hard of hearing folks, or other potential ways of cutting oneself off from others, inhibits their ability to lead a rich and full life. For others, not-masking may cause serious health problems, which those people may or may not want to disclose. These are considered topics of bodily autonomy, and at the same time we must also recognize that a lot of these medical decisions are based on things that are out of our control. Those who cannot fast on this day and may feel like they are missing out on an essential part of the holy day, those who feel nervous being in this room full of unmasked people, and - to return to the theme of Rosh HaShana’s teachings this year - those facing infertility while the new year speaks of new birth, likely do not feel that any of these things are autonomous choices at all.

As I mentioned on Rosh HaShana with the topic of infertility, be wary of asking questions you don’t want honest answers to, and be aware of what you may presume the answer is going to be. If asked about why they are masking, an immunocompromised person may answer politely and simply, they may dodge the question, or they might feel insulted to even be asked, because with a new wave of covid, they are taking a risk to even be out around unmasked people. While it is uncomfortable for those of us who don’t want to mask, or who may feel pressured to go unmasked in come situations, to confront the concerns of the ongoing pandemic and those it most endangers, if we ask, we must be willing to hear the real answer. Being willing to hear the concerns of others and navigate difficult conversations about our different views and life experiences, hopefully coming to a common understanding of our shared values, this is what builds resilient communities. This is what it means to Choose Life.

          Rabbi Ani DiFranco said, “I was blessed with a birth and a death, and I guess I just want some say in between. Don’t you understand? In the day to day, in the face to face, I have to act as strong as I can just to preserve a place where I can be who I am, talk to me now.” Our synagogue should be a place where people can make the choices that define a meaningful life, a place where people can be who they are without fighting for it. May 5784 be a year of welcoming and rejoicing, a year of community building and fierce love in action, and may we make the choices that inscribe us in the book of life for one more year. Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784