What it means to choose life

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This week’s Torah portion is Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20.

“Behold, I give before you this day the life and the good, the death and the evil … blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your seed …” (Deut. 30:15, 19)


What does it mean to choose life?

The Hebrew word for “life,” chaim, is a plural noun. The Chasidim have a play on words which provides an interesting insight explaining the composition of chaim — on an occasion of joy (engagement, marriage, birth), it is only when drinking wine or liquor that we cry out, l’chaim, meaning “to life.”  Why not also say l’chaim when drinking water, which is so basic to the formation of life?

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They answer that the Hebrew word for wine, yayin, has two yuds, as does the Hebrew word for liquor, yash (literally yayin saraf, “fiery wine”). The Hebrew letter yud is tied to Yid (Yehudi), or “Jew”— a toast usually being invoked to celebrate two Jews coming together in marriage, in joining for a birth celebration, or generally within the familial context of Kiddush on Friday evening. The Hebrew word for water, mayim, has only one yud; God has declared that “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

Hence, say the Chasidim, the Hebrew word for life consists of four letters, the exterior letters being chet and mem, spelling hom, warmth, love — surrounding two yuds that are not separated by any other letter. And the beverages which go along with the toast also require two yuds (Jews) together as in the Hebrew words yayin and yash.


Allow me to present an alternative interpretation. The Bible states: “And the Lord God had formed the human being [Adam] of dust from the ground, and He exhaled into his nostrils the soul [breath] of life, making the human a living being” (Gen. 2:7) The Bible is explaining the image of God, used in the first creation chapter, “And God created the human being [Adam] in His image …” (Gen. 1:27). The Zohar adds a crucial dimension to the imagery of God’s exhalation into the nostrils of the clay-dust form: “Whoever exhales, exhales from within himself,” from the innermost “stuff” of his essential being.

What this teaches us is arguably the most important insight into the essence of the human being defined by the Bible: a portion of God from on High resides within every human being.

This idea has enormous ramifications as to how we see the human being, as to how we look upon ourselves. The human being is endowed with a portion of divinity which enables him to create, to change, to love, to transcend both himself as well as the physical world into which he was created; the portion of God within the human being lives eternally just as the God without and beyond is eternal, and empowers the human being to perfect God’s world and redeem God’s world.

The challenge facing each of us is which aspect of our beings we choose to develop, the bestial or the celestial. God is always with us, within us, the voice which we must listen for and hearken to.

That is why the Hebrew word for life, chaim, is a plural noun; the soul of life is the God who resides within each of us, the essence of our personalities to whom we must return and with whom we must life if we are to realize our truest human potential, if we are to truly live eternally, together with our progeny in a perfecting world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat.

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