Parshat Netzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
“See that I have placed in front of you today life and good ... ” (Deuteronomy 30:15)
What constitutes being alive? This matter is crystallized from an incidental Halachic perspective describing the dismantling of the appropriate metaphysical and universal confluence of elements in terms of end of life. As the Code of Law (YD 339) articulates, it is the moment the soul exits the body. A priori, the soul’s presence in the body is life.
Of course, technical mechanics for the aforementioned reality is not the exclusive prerequisite for being alive.
The Midrash (Tanchuma, V’zos Habracha) unveils the secret to being alive. “An evil person during their lifetime is like he is dead because he sees the sun shine and doesn’t bless … eats and drinks and doesn’t bless. However, the righteous recite a blessing on everything that they eat, drink, see and hear.” (Also see Brachos 18a) Hence, the difference between being alive and dead is the recitation of blessings.
Rabbi Meir Reiss (Ohr Lenisivasi, introduction) enlightens the deeper meaning of this Midrash. Life is awareness. When one’s senses are awake to the radiance of the shining sun, the blossoming of beautiful flowers, the scent of stirring aroma of a myriad of spices, the taste of succulent foods, the enrapturing panoramic views of the planet’s wonders, and fantastic intricacies of the inner contrivances of organisms, he is alive. Drifting through life without attentiveness to one’s surroundings is to be as lifeless as a rock. Constant recitation of blessings connected to the vicissitudes of life is emblematic of one’s lifeforce’s vibrancy.
For example, veterans of war remember every detail of their exploits while they might not recall their experiences a few years past. The reason for this is elementary. In midst of the battlefield every move can be the difference between life and death. They were forced to be aware of every decision. They were alive. Now in mundane existence each decision is not as weighty. Therefore, they don’t feel as alive.
This is true in an intellectual sense as well. Awareness of all legitimate ideas engender vibrancy. Ensconcing oneself in an echo chamber of like-minded perspectives eradicates proportionality deadening awareness. This is because opposing view points help to concretize our opinions. If we don’t clarify our positions they can become extreme. This is why R’ Yochanan didn’t want to live without Reish Lakish as a colleague. He said, “whenever I said something he would ask me twenty-four questions ...” ( Bava Metzia 84a).
Therefore, it’s important to embrace debate. Instead of blocking folks on social media or refusing to debate them, it would be constructive to consider their opinions and deal with the issues honestly.
Truthfully, the Torah is the ultimate source of awareness, of life as it states in Proverbs (3:18), “It is a tree of life.” It is taught in the Ethics of Our Fathers (6:7) and we declare it in the morning and Torah reading blessings. (Siddur)
It’s study facilitates awareness with presentation of all possible perspectives in a Socratic dialogue.
Understanding this helps us to cope with the dramatic declaration of Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai in the name of Rabbi Meir in the Ethics of Our Fathers (3:10). “Whoever forgets anything of his Torah learning, Scripture considers it as if he is liable for the death penalty.”
Rabbi Meir’s declaration is not a matter of penalty rather of consequence. Certainly, one who forgets his Torah study is not going to be executed by a tribunal but he has severed his connection with the Living God (Tiferes Yisrael, ad loc) which is life itself. JN
Rabbi Yakov Bronsteyn is a senior lecturer at Phoenix Community Kollel. He is one of the Kollel’s ‘Founding Fathers.’