D’var Torah, Friday 9/7/2018

Kolot Kehillah (Voices of Our Community) speaker – Wil Wilreker, CSN Professor of Anthropology

This evening we celebrate our last shabbat of 5778.  On Rosh Hashanah the books of life and death are opened.  In Parsha Nitzavim we are exhorted over and over again to observe Hashem’s commandments and choose life.  The thesis I present to you this evening is that choosing life is not metaphorical.  It is a matter of ones everyday decisions.

“See – I have placed before you today the life and the good, the death and the evil.”  Deut. 30:15.

These words were thrown on the ground before me in stark relief last Tuesday when a colleague named Mark shot himself in the men’s room across the hall from my office.  I was there, and I was one of the people who found him.  I have known Mark for over fifteen years.  I’ve spoken to his classes.  We’ve played chess at restaurants together.  When he retired and cleared out his office, he gave me a ceramic statue that had been a gift to him from his late sister.  He is an expert in Nevada hydrology and a seemingly tireless environmental activist.  And here he was on the ground twitching in a pool of blood.  Sometimes life and good and death and evil don’t mince words or hide in metaphors.  It’s not something I’ll un-see anytime soon.

It’s a lot easier to speak of weapons, mental health, and school violence when it’s someone else’s school.  Well, this time it was my school.  My building.  My floor.  My friend.

“This commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you, and it is not distant”  Deut. 30:11.

In Nitzavim, Hashem commands us to choose life. And yet here was my colleague – a man whom I know had chosen life many times over: Life for his students; life for his community; life for plants and animals around him – laying shattered on the floor, unable to choose life for himself.

My thesis is that choosing life is not metaphorical.  It is a matter of everyday decisions.  I chose life for Mark when I helped to stop the bleeding.  I chose life for myself thirty minutes later when I washed my hands and went to class.  The show goes on.

When I first sat down to write this talk, grand issues of contemporary politics came to mind.  “Choose life” might speak to abortion.  Pope Francis addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 2015 at the invitation of Speaker Boehner and Minority leader Pelosi, both Roman Catholics.  He invoked Deuteronomy 30 and mentioned this very issue, and then went on to talk about other issues of life:  The cruelty of capital punishment, and the destruction of our environment.

I would add mental health and the carnage in our schools to this list.  As American voters, it is in our power to cast our ballots every two years on these issues of life. But we vote every day on the ephemera of life, and more than our votes, it is these ephemera that are written in the book of life on Rosh Hashanah.

When I read a page of Torah – or “Mr. Brown can Moo, can you?” to my daughter, I choose life.

When I sing Shema in the shower, and the dog sings along, I choose life.

When I order the apple walnut salad instead of the whiskey bacon burger – I choose life.

These are the words inscribed in the Book of Life – the small, forgotten mitzvot of daily life.  And perhaps they are the most important, the ink with which the scribe writes.  Perhaps my colleague Mark’s years of toil on behalf of the environment have inscribed his name in the book of life – his name is written in water.

“I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live.”  Deut. 30:19

Mark, for whatever reason was unable to choose life, so Hashem and his friends chose life for him.  It looks like he’ll live.  Please keep him in your prayers.

Shabbat Shalom.