From this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim/Vayelech:
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… (Deuteronomy 31:19)
What does it mean to “choose life?” After all, isn’t life-force a voluntary reflex? In Genesis 2:7 we read that “(the Lord God) blew in his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” We know from contemporary science that neurons from our brain send out electrical impulses that are carried by our nervous system to the rest of our body. Even while we sleep at night, our hearts continue to beat, circulating our blood which enable our bodies to function. In what way could life possibly be a “choice?”
While physical life is certainly involuntary, living the life of the spirit is a choice we make every day, every minute, every second of our lives.
For me, one of the most profound examples of this teaching can be found in the classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Victor Frankl:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
It is how one chooses to live that becomes important. Merely occupying a breathing, functioning body is not really living. To live fully one must affirmatively decide how to live, how to behave, how to treat one’s fellow human beings, and how to make the most of the life we have been given.