Choices. They are everywhere. Each and every single moment since we wake up until we go to sleep is a moment of choice. Of choices. We may even have to make a decision between multiple choices, but in the end, it amounts to making decisions that can be summed up: choose between life and death, right or wrong.
Or it feels like it is.
Of course, our Torah says, in the famous passage of Deuteronomy 30:19
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—
Choose life always. That is what it means, does it not?
And now? How do you do that? How do you know for sure that you are choosing life always? There are some decisions that can be obvious. Others, not so much.
What about driving and texting? Seems obvious that it is not choosing the right decision and that it can mean immediate death. For yourself or for someone else. And what about taking the wrong turn that can send you to the wrong place at the wrong time ~ or that can save you from actually being at the wrong place at the wrong time: you never know in this case, that your decision can have cost you life or saved your life. How to decide, then?
Well, at this time of the year, and at that point in my life, I can say that I have been mulling over the question more often than I can count. And it is something that I can really understand people have problems with when it comes to religion and trusting that there is a kind and loving message in the Bible. The language can seem so harsh and so severe at times especially if we know that at the same time human behavior is flawed behavior, that we keep stumbling and failing and making mistakes and being overwhelmed especially because of the choices we have: simply because we were granted free will! and we certainly want to exercise that freedom.
Freedom of choice.
And how can it be freedom, if there is a wrong choice? It could be seen as a punishment for not gaming properly: but this is not how I have learned to understand this, and that passage in particular (which I admit I am very fond of, despite its harshness).
I understand that our free will is in the way we are going to look at what we have done that we may have seen as a mistake ~ I mean a mistake that still gave us a chance! not the kind of mistake that killed us (literally, but I assume that we are still alive right now). Until the very last moment of our lives we can choose life, and we can choose to redeem ourselves for our misdeeds: this is what Yom Kippur helps us to do and the litany of mismarked deeds that we recite and confess is the reminder that there is a choice in everything at every moment if we do not forget.
This past year, I made so many choices, at several turns of the year. This year, I noticed them while I was making conscious decisions: I may have given myself reasons, some to ease the feeling of guilt that may have arisen from the decisions I was making, but because last year at this season, I had been pondering about the theme of choice during Elul preparation, I remembered to look at each of my decisions with that lens of choosing life and it became my compass.
For instance: in January, after nearly six months of driving everyday to a daily minyan to say Kaddish for my mother who had died in August, I chose life because this obligation that I had undertaken willingly at the time of the death of my father – and had proven to be a life savior for me at that time – was now killing me.
It had been much more difficult to simply afford the journey and to experience the relief during the commute which had been the beautiful experience when mourning my father.
I, therefore, wondered why? Why had it been such a beautiful and rewarding mitzvah for my father who was the worst apikoires (someone who denies divine providence or existence) I have known and why was it becoming depressing and scary for my mother who was probably not religious at all but certainly more open to seeing her daughter practice and be observant?
I really pondered my decision to stop driving at night and say a daily kaddish before I was not obligated to do so anymore which was to occur on August 14, about six months after I stopped. And I started to feel life come back to me from the moment I did so. You may know that I suffer from bipolar disorder, and this year the depressive moods hit me extremely hard in the winter. I struggled to contain the symptoms and gave me a pass as this could have been seen as self-preservation – not to have to over drain my energy with the daily duty, but it was more spiritual than rational: my mother’s neshamah (soul) was actively hovering in so many ways already and I just needed to listen quietly from home to hear the calls and response of an imaginary kaddish even without a minyan. So I stayed at home and healed one day at a time.
Same with going to Shabbat services regularly. It had become so painful for some reasons, that it was killing me. I chose life.
Last Friday was my mom’s first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death, on the Hebrew calendar): at sundown, it was Shabbat and I went to Shabbat services at my temple where Beth Styles lead the musical services with our Cantor. Believe it or not, it was like my mom sang with me while I was singing with them.
And it felt the year of mourning was well over. And it felt good.
This year, I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I will dedicate my endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).
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