It was 6:53 am in Los Angeles. Beth was seven and a half months pregnant and, up until that moment, everything felt possible. The phone rang. It was my mother. Panic stricken. “Turn on the TV. A plane crashed in New York.” A bit dazed, Beth and I turned on the TV. Smoke. Confusion. How could a plane crash into a World Trade Center tower? 7:03 am in Los Angeles and from the edge of the TV screen another airplane appeared. More destruction. Visible death. People falling. Jumping. Friends perished; others would take longer to die. Their memories should only be for blessing.
Our son would be born five weeks later. Our daughters in 2005 and 2010. Wars would commence. The economy would crash, climb, and crash again. And in 2020, nineteen years later, the delicate balance between life and death would, once again, come into harsh focus as a global pandemic appeared on the edge of our horizon and slowly, inexorably, drew its dark cloak over the entire world.
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Netzavim, provides an antidote.
“This mandate that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven… It is not over the sea… It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it. See! Today I have set before you [a free choice] between life and good, and death and evil… I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.”
The tradition of our Torah is not a solitary journey of contemplation and isolation. It is not a journey towards something ephemeral, towards enlightenment or salvation. It is not dependent upon superhuman capabilities. Our spiritual directive is near us and within us. It is in our mouth and hearts to uphold; it is in ourselves to enliven it, to engage with it, to ensure that it is relevant. For ours is a living tradition. A wrestling match not a long meandering walk by which to escape reality. It is within us all—young and old alike—to make the choice to affirm life.