By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
People familiar with very old television will remember the comedian Jack Benny. In one of his famous sketches, he was confronted by an armed mugger who demanded, “Your money or your life?” Benny hesitated, causing the mugger to repeat his demand.
“I’m thinking it over,” Benny responded.
Yes, it is an old and hackneyed comedy line. But thousands of years before Jack Benny was confronted with the life or death question, the Torah gave the answer: “Choose life” (Deut. 30:19, The Israel Bible p. 515).
This statement in the Torah seems extraneous. Wouldn’t every person always choose life when faced with a life and death ultimatum?
The verse is even more perplexing when considered in its entirety:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live (Deut. 30:19, The Israel Bible p. 515)
What does it mean that you should choose life in order that you and your kids will live?
Every parent knows that children do not speak the language of, “Do as I say, not as I do.” They mimic every little action of their parents, much to our chagrin. This pattern holds true throughout our entire lives. How often do I hear my father’s words coming out of my mouth?
The Torah knows this. That is why, when commanding us to choose life, the Torah says “if and your offspring would live”. If we choose life, our children, who mimic our actions, will generally follow suit.
But what does it mean choose life? The answer is found in the next verse:
By loving Hashem your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. (Deut. 30:20, The Israel Bible p. 516)
The way to choose life is by following God and His commands. Of course, the wiser path is for an individual to choose life. This choice is often clear. But in some areas, the Torah points us to behaviors that we may not see as having a beneficial effect. Idolatry does not seem particularly harmful, but the Torah informs us that rejecting paganism is choosing the path of life. Other commandments, such as not mixing wool and linen, may seem even less life-affirming. But choosing life means not picking and choosing what makes sense to us. Rather, we must follow the Torah in its entirety.
Adhering to the laws of the Torah unconditionally will certainly influence our children. The multi-generational aspect of following the Torah is emphasized in the rest of the verse:
For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that Hashem (the LORD) swore to your ancestors, Avraham (Abraham), Yitzchak (Isaac), and Yaakov (Jacob), to give to them. (Deut. 30:20, The Israel Bible p. 516)
It is not difficult to imagine the patriarchs and matriarchs exhibiting exemplary behavior and adhering to a Biblical lifestyle. It is just as natural to imagine their sons and daughters mimicking their parents’ behavior. We must to the same for our children as well.
As a result of this ongoing pattern of parents “choosing life” and children following suit, the Jewish people are still alive today and have merited returning to the promised land.
The best way to teach others is through our actions. This is especially true of our children, but it is really true of everyone. If we convey that we have “chosen life” through the way we behave and carry ourselves, others will want to follow in our path and make similar choices as well.