“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
In ancient Egypt, religion was centered around death. That is the reason the Egyptians built the great pyramids, as tombs for their pharaohs and other leaders. Their priests were taught to work with bodies, and the pharaohs were buried with plenty of provisions to carry them to the next world. The Egyptians invented the art of mummifying bodies to prevent their decay. When the Israelites left Egypt, they forbade their priests (kohenim) from being near a dead body or going into a cemetery. The Israelite religion was to focus on life, not death.
In truth, many of the world’s great religions are focused on death rather than life. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism teach reincarnation, living over and over again based on one’s karma. But the ultimate goal is to escape from the ongoing samsara, or constant rebirths into this world. One seeks to enter nirvana and no longer return to this world of suffering. These religions contain many beautiful teachings, but the embrace of life in this world is not one of them.
Western religions such as Christianity, and Islam also put an emphasis on the World-to-Come. The goal was to enter heaven and eternal bliss. But one can only enter heaven if one lives a proper life according to the rules of the religion. Otherwise, one might meet with eternal damnation. One of the greatest scientists of all time Galileo taught, science is about studying the heavens, religion is about getting into heaven. Although kept under house arrest the last years of his life for his heretical views, Galileo remained a deeply religious man.
As a rabbi, I have met with many deeply religious Christians who are worried that, because of my religious views, I will not make it into heaven. They respect me but they worry about me, and so they try to change me. As opposed to these religious Christians, many of the greatest critics of religion such as Karl Marx have said that the focus on the next world prevents people from trying to transform this world. To Marx, religion was the opiate of the masses, keeping them in line so they could endure the suffering in this world with the promise of bliss in the next.
This idea that we should be focused on the next world has made it into Judaism. Rabbi Jacob says, “This world is like a hallway to the world to come. Prepare yourself in the hallway so you may enter the banquet hall” (Avot 4:21). Judaism speaks about eternal life in Olam Haba “The World to Come.” But Judaism also speaks about tehiyat hametim resurrection, coming back to this world to finish whatever we left undone. It is customary to bury a Jew in a tallit (ritual garment) that is made unkosher by cutting one of the fringes. The idea is that we cannot do mitzvot or good deeds in the World to Come. This material world is where the action is.
Long ago the Greek philosopher Plato taught that our souls come from a perfect place, and they are trapped in this material world, a world filled with sin and decay. But someday the soul will leave this world of suffering and return to that perfect place. That is one reason Plato’s teacher Socrates was willing to drink the hemlock and leave this world. The perfect place is the World to Come.
So many religious and philosophical traditions see this world as a place of pain and imperfection. There is a longing to escape this world, to choose death over life. This week’s portion teaches the precise opposite. We are given a choice between life and death and told to choose life. This world is a place of goodness, “God looked at everything and saw that it was very good.” Life is always chosen over death.
Rosh Hashana is coming Sunday night. Over and over we say on the holiday, Zochrenu L’Hayim – “Remember us for life, O God Who loves life. And write us in the Book of Life, for Your sake O God of life.” At the heart of Judaism is the commandment to choose life.