Nitsavim: on the heart/mouth dialectic, on Humanistic values, and on how we choose life

In Nitsavim, Moses tells the people that the Torah is for everyone – “it is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (30.11). Anyone and everyone should have access to the teachings of the Torah. This is one of the motivations for my commentaries on Torah; too many Jews feel Torah is the domain of the religious or the orthodox. But it is our cultural legacy too. And, besides, if we don’t know what it says, we can’t argue back when Torah/bible is used to justify things with which we disagree. This parshah says that the Torah is “not in the heavens” or the “seas,” “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (30.12-14). The connection between the heart and the mouth is meaningful for Humanistic Jews, because we reject the idea that we should say words we do not believe. We hold value in speaking the truth of our hearts and minds. The line “not in the heavens” will be familiar to many readers from the “ovens of Achnai” story from the Talmud. Without rehearsing the entire story here, it is a story of how humans, particularly rabbis, were given the power to make decisions on earth. The problems of our times are our own to solve. This is an idea that served early rabbis, but continues to serve Humanistic Jews as well. We know that the solutions we seek are “not in the heavens,” and while the Torah may not provide all of the truths and solutions we seek, it does provide us with a narrative body that asks some of our key questions.
One interesting aspect of Moses’ warning in this parshah, particularly given that we read it immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, is that, if someone turns away from God “The Lord will never forgive him; rather will the Lord’s anger and passion rage against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the Lord blots out his name from under heaven” (29.19). Last week we saw the first mentioning of the writing comprising the Torah as a “book,” reminding us not only of its narrativity (and I discuss its literary value), but also of its later writing and attribution to an earlier time. We spoke also of the influence of surrounding cultures on what became Jewish culture. No more is this evident than here. Many of us are familiar with the traditional idea that during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is keeping names in a “Book of life.” Those who have sinned and not repented are blotted out of that book. The idea comes from a Mesopotamian idea that there is a book containing the divine decree for each individual. One of the ideas that most Jews take seriously at (for many) the one time of year that they fully participate in Jewish life, is taken from another culture. Humanistic Jews are less worried about the way in which the book of life idea may be borrowed, and more concerned with the way in which it encourages people to renounce control over their own lives. There is no book. There is no plan. None of us knows how long we will live, and, for this reason, it is necessary to do the work of asking for forgiveness, and forgiving ourselves. This is the meaning we draw from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  
In this parshah, Moses tells the people to “choose life.” By that he means, believe in and obey God so that one secures their place in the book of life. I believe that to be a Humanistic Jew is to choose life. We do not look forward to a “world to come,” and we do not defer entirely to “tradition” and the past. We are in the present. We are committed to building our own futures through rational decision making and a commitment to follow our hearts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our world. That is to choose life. How we choose life is an individual expression of the concept. For me, I hope that I engage and grapple with the people, issues, and challenges of my community. I hope that I maximize my participation in the things which bring me joy and sustenance. I hope that I find moments to laugh and play, as well as to work hard. I hope that I make my family and friends feel loved, and that I appreciate the love they offer me. I hope that I spend time in nature, with books, with company, and alone. I hope that I devote equal energy to my intellectual pursuits and my emotional ones. I hope that I care for my body, enjoying the rush of endorphins that come with exercise, but also knowing the value of rest. I hope above all that I let passion guide my choices and that my life becomes fuller and fuller as a result. Let’s all think of how we can better “choose life” for ourselves. 

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