Moses and Choosing Life
In the book of Deuteronomy, God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants might live.” (Deut 30:19 NRSV)
I relish life. I want to be fully alive even when it hurts, which sometimes it definitely does, so that Bible passage appeals to me. But what does it really mean to choose blessings over curses and life over death?
A rabbinical midrash on Moses’ death suggests an answer. The story goes that when it’s time for Moses to die, he refuses. God argues with him, the angels implore him, yet Moses insists he’s not leaving the earth. He pleads his case to the heavens, to the mountains, to the ocean. Reminding God of all he has done for Him, Moses demands compensation, explaining that as it is written in God’s own word, the laborer expects to get paid the same day. Thus, Moses expects at least to enter the Promised Land.
God tells him, “No,” yet still the prophet argues.
In his book Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Elie Wiesel wonders why Moses would do such a thing. Maybe, like most of us, he was afraid to die. Yet Wiesel doesn’t think it’s that simple. He suspects Moses was trying to set an example.
Wiesel asks, “Was that his way of protesting heaven’s use of death to diminish” us? Could it have been “[h]is way of teaching Israel an urgent and timeless lesson: that life is sacred — always and for everyone — and that no one has the right to give it up”? 
I am reminded of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” Though the poem may seem like a rant against death, it acknowledges that all “wise men” know that when the end is near, the “dark is right.”
As the poet’s father stands “on that sad height” where night can overtake us, he begs the older man to “rage, rage,” as if by doing so, he might survive one more day, week, year. In the poem we see the pain, the fierceness, and the passion, that are part of our human desire to beat death. Yes, the night is “good” and “right,” yes Thomas prays his father will cling to life. As Wiesel tells us, “life is sacred,” and we must not give that up lightly.
To Choose Life May Mean to Accept Death
But we all know that eternal life can’t be the end for Thomas’ father, nor for Moses. Yet in Paul D. Kerbel’s retelling of the midrash, the Hebrew prophet is so insistent, that God finally agrees to let him have his wish. However, if he chooses to survive for eternity, all of Israel will die.
God gives Moses a choice between life for himself or life for his people. When the passage in Deuteronomy tells us to choose life and blessings, it does not mean to do so if we thereby harm others. Moses understood this. When given such a choice, he accepted this fate. “For,” as Kerbel writes, “one may not go beyond a certain limit; to live is good, to want to live is human, but not at the expense of another’s death.” Eventually “death is right” for each of us.
Moses railed against God not so we might try to live forever, but to teach us how to embrace this life we have been given. Yet he also showed us that by honoring the dignity of people other than himself, even if it meant his body’s demise, he was doing as the Deuteronimist said. He was choosing blessings, choosing life.
Greed, Addiction, and Choosing Life
In their book, Choose Life, Daisaku Ikeda and Arnold Toynbee dialogue about various aspects of our spiritual selves, our communities, our political systems, our scientific questioning, the world, and the environment. They discuss conservation versus pollution, stewardship versus exploitation, peace versus war, cooperation versus power-over, generosity versus greed, and compassion versus hate.
Toynbee points to greed as the driver of all our ugliness, violence, and destruction.  Like with an addiction, greed keeps us from feeling satisfied with what we own or who we are. When we get trapped in the illusion that we are no more than flesh and blood, when we believe that love depends on what we do and how much we earn, then we get lost in our addictions. We get caught up in the struggle for prestige, wealth, status. Blind to the truth of ourselves and others, we blame, cajole, manipulate, take revenge, and tell ourselves we are strong, smart, the best.
Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness, notes that we Americans “want to appear powerful, not wimpy, and we want to win.”  Unable to tolerate weakness, we destroy those who are vulnerable, because we see in them a reflection of ourselves. That terrifies us. So we shop, gossip, drink, punish, gorge, judge, and carouse, hoping to wrest control from a mysterious and uncertain universe. By being “decisive” and “strong,” we think we are choosing life. In reality, we are choosing death.
Letting Go of Falsehood
To choose life instead, we must learn to embrace uncertainty, be one with nature, humble ourselves in the face of that which is greater than we are. We must choose the holy and sacred and wise; we must choose God. Not the false god of our consumer culture, but the real god who calls us to live as whole, joyful, honest, connected, “undivided”  human beings.
This certainly is not easy. Even if we stop drinking, or overspending, or overworking, or overeating, it’s still hard choose love and hope and joy, because to do so means we must be honest with ourselves. To choose life, we have to look hard and long at who we really are. We have to listen to the quiet, gentle voice of our soul.
Palmer teaches us how to do this. He shows us how to sit with one another in silence, acceptance, and compassion, and he explains how to listen so that by telling our stories, we can hear our own words. Then, in the stillness, we might just hear our own soul calling to us. Truth and healing arise in their own time, when we give them space.
To choose the integrated life, to be patient while others grow into their own truth and selfhood, we must honor the worth and dignity of every person. “There can be no value greater than the dignity of life,” Ikeda says, “and any attempt, whether religious or social, to rate something higher must ultimately bring oppression to humanity.”  Toynbee adds that only when “our actions are governed by compassion and love, not by greed and aggressiveness,” can we honor that dignity. 
Trapped by the Lure of Attachments
Yet it’s not helpful to shame ourselves for our greed or blame ourselves for our aggressiveness. At birth, we are disconnected from the Source, and it’s easy to forget who we really are and get lost in our addictions.
While talking about the threat of pollution, Toynbee gives a great description of how helpless we are in the face of our greed. We know that to save our planet we must restrain our desires, yet this knowledge “is not a strong enough incentive. People who have become addicts to greed tend to take a short-term view: ‘After me, the deluge.’ . . . They may love their children, yet this love may not move them to sacrifice part of their present affluence for the sake of safeguarding their children’s future.” 
That’s what addiction does to us. Even though we hurt those we love, even though we feel ashamed, we cannot, on our own, avoid the lure of our attachments and distractions. Speaking in the “broadest possible sense,” Toynbee calls for a “religious conversion.”  How else but by claiming an ethic and a faith that is larger and stronger than our consumer culture will we mange to sacrifice for others? Those of us who have found healing in twelve-step programs know we can’t do this alone. We don’t have to believe in a particular religion or a human-like god, but we do we have find a way to “choose life.”
Helping Our Society Choose Life
The history of the United States is one of greed and grasping. Right now, our country is run by people who don’t seem to understand the meaning of silence, patience, or spiritual connection. Our religious leaders too often proclaim a love that looks more like power, control, greed, and hatred, like a desperate addiction to ego that masquerades as piety. This false love, this false piety, have infiltrated our prisons, schools, courts, government, and religious institutions. For almost as long as we’ve been human, we have struggled against this urge to choose curses and death over blessings and life.
Yet we can make the better choice. We can choose compassion, sacrifice, the “undivided” life. To do this, we must pause, listen, wait for the gentle and timid wisdom of our souls, reach out for that divine force that can guide us into recovery. When we do so, the change in us creates a change in those around us. In some small way, when we choose life, we make our home, our town, our country a better place.
Of course, this is not the only way to choose life and change our world. Nonviolent resistance, raising our voices in song, rewriting our cultural stories, are all important. Yet until we learn to live “undivided,” until we can choose life within our own hearts, all our attempts to influence others are likely to be violent and hurtful. Choosing life for our planet and recovery for our country must start with our individual souls.
In faith and fondness,
- Wiesel, Elie, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, New York: Random House, 1976, 201-202.
- Toynbee, Arnold and Daisaku Ikeda, Choose Life: A Dialogue, London: Oxford University, 1976, 40-41.
- Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Ashland : Blackstone Audio and Buck 50 Productions, 2009, Chapter 10.
- Parker Palmer’s term for living true to our values, for being whole and honest, and acting with integrity.
- Toynbee and Ikeda, 340.
- Ibid, 342.
- Ibid, 41.
- Ibid, 41.
Photo Credits – “Choosing” by George Fredric Watts, around 1864. A picture of Dame Ellen Terry being tempted by the showy, but empty camellia instead of the noble and fragrant violets. Painting, and the photo of it, is in the public domain in the United States. Via Wikimedia Commons.