Cheering Death and Choosing Life: Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 2011

Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

I thought about Franklin’s idea the other night as I watched the Republican Presidential candidates debate at the Reagan Library.  There was one moment in particular that struck me.  The moderator asked Texas Governor Rick Perry to reflect on the fact that Texas had executed 234 inmates during his tenure, by far the most under any governor in modern times.  What struck me was not the question itself, which seemed a perfectly ordinary one to ask a presidential candidate.  Neither did I find Governor Perry’s response particularly unusual; he said that he trusted the fairness of Texas’ judicial process, and that some particularly heinous crimes deserve an equally brutal punishment.

No, what I found extraordinary about that moment in the debate was that almost immediately upon the mention of the staggering number of people Texas has executed during the Perry administration, the studio audience burst into loud applause and cheers.  And, just in case the viewer might have thought that this was a fluke, the crowd again erupted in applause following Governor Perry’s impassioned defense of capital punishment.  The crowd cheered louder for the death penalty than for any other issue.  If applause is a measure of support, the crowd supported the death penalty more than ending poverty, more than creating jobs, even more than lowering taxes.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been replaying the scene over and over in my head.  Not because of my discomfort with the death penalty in general – although admittedly I am not a great proponent of it – but because of the crowd’s cheering.  As the New York Times put it in a recent editorial, “Even supporters of the death penalty used to consider execution a solemn state responsibility, not an occasion for celebration.”  What would drive a crowd in the United States of America in 2011 to raucously cheer the idea of execution?

The answer, I think, is that the death penalty is symbolic.  Capital punishment symbolizes, for many, security in an insecure world.  Violent crime, whether we are affected by it directly or not, leaves us feeling vulnerable, exposed, weak, and out of control.  And the anxiety is even deeper and more encompassing: We live in an unpredictable world, in which we truly do not know what will happen to us from one moment to the next.  So through capital punishment, many hope, at least in part, to achieve restorative justice.  Many folks feel that executing moral offenders restores the moral order, that by eliminating a source of insecurity, we can restore predictability and control to our society.  Capital punishment, which grants us the power to doll out life and death, lets us feel that we ultimately have control over our world.

When you think about it this way, it is not surprising why an audience, at this moment in time, would cheer so enthusiastically for the death penalty.  We live in a time that feels particularly uncertain. Our financial institutions are in crisis both at home and abroad.  More and more of us are having difficulty finding a job, or are worried about whether the job we have will still be there next week or next month. We feel a lack of leadership in our corridors of power and are anxious about where our country is headed. The specter of terrorism lingers over us. Many feel that the values they cherish are being supplanted by an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism, in which folks believe that everyone is entitled to do whatever is right in their own eyes. Our world increasingly reminds us that we can neither predict nor control it.

And so, “in this world,” Franklin teaches, “nothing is certain, except death and taxes.”  When the world is uncertain, and people are afraid how things will turn out, they will begin to celebrate death, because it is one thing that is certain, one thing that helps us feel in control.

The issue I bring to our consideration is not the death penalty itself.  The morality of capital punishment is an important conversation for us to have, but another time.  The enthusiasm of the crowd at the Republican debate is symptomatic of something bigger, something dangerous that’s going on in our world, in our country, and in our hearts: Many of us are channeling our fears and our uncertainties into supporting death, rather than embracing life.

Something’s going on. Individually and as a society, many of us are embracing anger, sadness, contempt, and cynicism. Something’s going on. Many of us are choosing apathy, ignorance, intolerance, oppression, and war.  Something’s going on. Many of us are becoming more selfish and self-absorbed.  Something’s going on.  And ironically, many of us are doing this because we feel our lives depend on this hardening of our hearts.

Our parashah this week, Nitzavim-Vayelekh, warns us against giving into this very human, but very self-defeating, tendency.  In one of the Torah’s most powerful statements, Moses instructs the Children of Israel:

Ha-idoti vakhem ha-yom et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz, ha-hayyim v’ha-mavet natati l’fanekha, ha-b’rakhah v’ha-kelalah. U’vaharta bahayyim, l’ma’an tihyeh atah v’zarekha.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life, so that you and your children may live.

What does it mean to choose life?  In the next verse, Moses offers a way forward:

L’ahavah et Adonai Elohekha, Lishmo’a b’kolo, u-l’davka vo, ki hu hayyekha.

By loving Adonai your God, by listening to God’s voice, by clinging to God. For that is your life.

Love.  Listen.  Connect.  That is what it means to truly live.  That is how we recognize whether we are choosing life.

We ought, each of us, to ask ourselves at every moment, in every situation:

Am I loving? Am I loving myself, and am I loving beyond myself?

Am I listening?  Am I listening to the cries of those in need?  Am I listening to the needs of those around me?  Am I listening to the impassioned demands of a moral and loving God?  Am I listening to that still, small voice inside inviting me to become my best self?  Am I paying attention?

And am I connected?  Am I connected to my real needs?  Am I truly connected to family and friends?  Am I connected to community?  Am I connected to the broader biosphere and geosphere?  Am I connected to God, am I connected to the totality of all creation, of which I am an inextricable part?

Choosing life is to be committed to personal happiness, knowledge, meaning, integrity, and dynamism.  Choosing life is to be committed to building relationships and communities that are grounded on principles of mutual love, joy, just treatment for all, and peace.  Choosing life is to be committed to helping life flourish and thrive among all human and non-human beings

Love. Listen. Connect. That is life. That is what it means to choose life.

But there’s an even more fundamental problem with this commandment.  At first glance, it is a very strange instruction.  After all, what rational person, when given the choice between life and death, would choose death?  It seems obvious and simple to the point of absurdity.  But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be a commandment.  Moses knows that life is often excruciatingly unpredictable. Moses doesn’t tell us to choose life because it is easy.  He tells us to choose life because it is hard.  Loving, listening, and connecting can leave us fragile and exposed, and we must recognize that choosing life is, indeed, choosing to be vulnerable.

So knowing what it means to choose life doesn’t solve how difficult it is to uphold the command in the first place.

To that, Moses repeats the following phrase several times, in various formulations and permutations, in our parashah and, indeed, throughout the book of Deuteronomy: “Hazak v’ematz,” be strong and courageous. “Al tirah,” fear not.

We may live in a world in which there is much to fear, but all we truly have control over is whether or not we will be afraid.  Fear can be useful, it can help us protect ourselves.  But, as my teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous reminds us, “fear can also confuse our moral landscape.  It can jumble our instinctive ability to reason through complex situations and determine what is really the right outcome.”  The only path way to choosing life, to truly living, is not by seeking to control our world – a path which actually shuts us off and shuts us down, a path in which we choose death, a path that ultimately is as illusory as it is counter-productive – but by seeking to control our fear.  Choosing life is about choosing the courage to embrace vulnerability and the strength to stand up to our fears.  Choosing life is about not running for refuge in a false sense of certainty, but rather it is about standing at the ready with resilience and faith for whatever the future may hold.  Choosing life is about choosing to embrace the best in ourselves and in each other.  Al Tira, fear not.  In the words of Rabbi Brous, we have the power to drive out the fear and narrowness that leads us to cheer on death, and to supplant them with a raucous standing ovation for open-hearted empathy.  Our challenge is not to cower from it.

Later tonight, we will gather at Main Line Reform Temple for a special worship service called Selihot that launches the High Holy Day Season.  Selihot is the Hebrew word for “forgiveness.”  I hope you will join us at these services.  And when you are there, I invite you to consider: asking for forgiveness is nothing if not the recognition that, ultimately, we are not in control, that our fates are not entirely in our own hands.  And we can choose whether the unpredictability of life will lead us to give in to an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, of doubt and uncertainty.  We can choose to be passionate and enthusiastic for that which gives us a sense of control, even if that sense is illusory.  Or we can choose not to be afraid.  We can choose to love, listen, and connect. Vulnerable and fragile though it may be, we can strongly and courageously choose life.

I have put before you this day life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life, so that you and your children may live.

Shabbat Shalom.

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