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Choices Matter

by: Cheryl Pedersen

It’s not often that wisdom from two very different sources intersect on a single day. My sister was first to share. She, like me, is substitute teaching and in one of the classrooms she was in this past Friday, the teacher had a sign posted with the following message:

HATE has 4 letters, so does Love, ENEMIES has 7 letters, so does Friends. LYING has 5 letters, so does Truth. NEGATIVE has 8, so does Positive. UNDER has 5, so does Above. CRY has 3 letters, so does Joy. ANGER has 5 letters, so does Happy. HURT has 4 letters, so does Heal.

It means life is like a double edged sword…so choose the better side of life.

The second bit of wisdom that tied to the first was a tweet from NBA player Kobi Simmons, former Arizona Wildcat who went on to play for the Memphis Grizzlies, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and is currently playing with the Polish Basketball League. His tweet read, “A bottle of water can be 50 cents at a supermarket, $2 at the gym, $3 at the movies and $6 on a plane. Same water. Only thing that changed its value was the place…So the next time you feel your worth is nothing, maybe you’re at the wrong place.”

Pretty insightful, don’t you think? The wisdom in both the teacher’s sign and the basketball player’s tweet was that we make choices about how we view this world and even ourselves. Where you are and what you choose has a direct impact on your life. This week’s parashah is titled “Netzavim” which means “the ones standing.” It comes on the tail of the Tochecha, that long list of horrendous curses at the end of Ki Tavo, that are to be applied to anyone not obeying God’s word. Netzavim begins like this:

"You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God–your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer–to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Deuteronomy 29:9-12

This portion contains some of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. Here in the opening we know exactly to whom it’s addressed. This is for every man, woman, and child, even the stranger traveling in their midst. It applies to the leaders and officials right down to the common laborers. It’s an inclusive and unifying covenant.

Principle #1. The portion goes on to talk about the future redemption. Moses warns the people that they will be exiled from the land if they abandon God’s laws. Then he tells them the happy ending which is that “You will return to the LORD your God…If your outcasts shall be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the LORD your God gather you.” (Deuteronomy 30:2,4). This prophecy is echoed throughout Tanakh, by Joshua, Hosea, Zechariah, and Nehemiah. It’s the focus of the High Holy Days which are upon us. Return is “teshuvah” and we are preparing to return to God in this time.

Principle #2. Netzavim also talks about the practicality of Torah in what is perhaps my favorite verse in all of the Bible:

"Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…Neither is it beyond the sea…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." Deuteronomy 30:11-14

The message is practical: “You can do this.”

Principle #3. Finally, and central to the bits of wisdom I shared in my opening, Netzavim talks about the freedom of choice.

"See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase…I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life." Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19

This is Principle #4 and perhaps the most important one because choice drives the first 3. This message of choice is what comes through loud and clear in the teacher’s sign and the basketball player’s tweet. We have choices in this life. We choose the words we use often forgetting there is another side that is as easily chosen. Hate can be replace by love if we choose to see others through God’s lens. Enemies can be friends if we will humble ourselves to reach out in friendship. We can choose to tell the truth, not “our truth,” but “the truth” about what we know is right rather than lying to ourselves and others. We can choose a positive attitude, to rise above the situation, to embrace joy, be happy, and offer healing rather than hurt. The charge given by Moses to the people and to us is to choose the better side of life. We are commanded to choose life. Twitter is usually a pretty awful place. It’s why I’ve never been interested in being part of it. However, I enjoy when someone shares a positive message and Kobi Simmons did just that. He reminds us that how we view ourselves is also a choice. We make choices about the environment we’re in, the people with whom we associate, and the value we place on ourselves. If we see ourselves only as victims of our circumstances, we will be victims. If we choose instead to rise above our current situation–think about that airplane and the $6 water up there–we increase our value to ourselves and others.

One of my first days teaching I was in a business class conducting a conversation about goal-setting. I asked the students where they saw themselves in ten years. Most were freshman including Amari, the boy with the wide smile and ready answer. He said, “When I’m 25, I’m gonna be wealthy. I’m gonna be livin’ in a mansion.” He looked around the room and nodded his head. I advised him to hang onto that dream and work hard to get there.

Friday I subbed for a Math teacher and lo and behold, there was Amari in my class. As most of the class struggled to understand how to resolve and graph unequal linear equations, Amari sat in the front row, head down, working through the problems and getting them right. With that kind of attitude, I expect his mansion is perhaps more reality than pipe dream. Choices matter.

We enter the High Holy Days ready to return to the LORD our God in repentance and choosing to get back on track. Netzavim opens with the entire congregation of Israel standing before God. We too are ready to stand before God, united despite our differences, looking to a final redemption, knowing that the Torah is in our mouths and our hearts, and ready to choose life. May you make the same choice each and every day.

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