Among the stories in the news the past few weeks was that of the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by American dentist Walter Palmer. Palmer lured the lion outside of its legally protected habitat, shot it with a crossbow and then stalked the maimed lion for 40 hours until finally gunning it down, skinning and beheading it. Animal rights advocates were rightly horrified by this and their protests didn’t fall on deaf ears. Tzar baaley chayim, causing unnecessary pain to animals is one of the 7 Laws of Noah that the Torah says in incumbent upon all mankind to observe.
But are animal rights the same as human rights as some animal rights advocates proclaim? Of course not! So what is it that distinguishes us from the rest of Gd’s creatures? For me, it’s the ability to choose. Making choices is what makes us most human. This is indicated right at the beginning of today's Torah portion: R’ey, Anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom, b’racha uklala, “See, I have set before today a blessing and a curse.” Therefore, choose!
In a few weeks, we will read the follow up in Parshat Nitzavim (Deut. 30:19): “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” The Torah then implores us: “Uvacharta bachayim, therefore, choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” What does it mean to choose life, to choose blessings or curses? Can we choose to be blessed with a healthy baby or a happy marriage? And who would choose to contract a terrible illness or die? What is the Torah really saying to us when it calls upon us to choose? Choose what?!
We can’t always choose what will happen to us—much of which is simply out of our control. But we can choose how we will respond to what happens to us, and in so doing, bring blessings or curses into our lives.
Let me illustrate with the story of 2 members of my former congregation in Brooklyn (26 years ago) who suffered terrible debilitating health problems. Both men were in their mid-60s, but how they coped with their circumstances was a marked contrast in making choices. The 1st suffered a serious stroke which left him paralyzed on his left side. For years, he had enjoyed writing and had used an old manual typewriter that had been in his possession since early adulthood in Germany.
The 1st time I visited him at home after his stroke, he cried to me that he could no longer write, since he was left-handed. He also could not type, since he was a hunt-and-peck typist who used his left index finger. This was before the widespread use of computers and voice-recognition software. I suggested he try using his right hand to type, but he rejected my advice saying that he had never used his right hand for anything and he showed me how awkward he was when he tried to pick up a knife and fork. Still, I assured him, with time and training, many had done it and he could too. But he assured me he couldn’t. And he was right.
From that time, until he died 3 years later, he never wrote a word, never left his wheelchair, sat embittered in his den, angry at Gd, angry at his wife for having died years earlier, angry at me for trying to convince him that he could still be productive and creative, angry at his friends for not coming to visit him more often to listen to his groaning and complaining. R’ey, Anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom, b’racha uklala, “See, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse”—light and darkness. He chose darkness, and lived his remaining years embittered, cursing the night.
But the other congregant chose a very different response to his injury. He was sprayed with a strong chemical in his paint factory that left him completely blind in both eyes. If anyone had reason to curse the darkness, he did. This accident forced him to retire from the business he created and loved and the need of this formerly very independent man to have constant attention.
But in becoming blind, he came to realize the ways in which blind people in our society experienced discrimination: how difficult it was to access many buildings, to ride on city buses, to get the attention of people in stores and restaurants. He noticed how many laws designed to help the disabled were poorly enforced.
Rather than sit in darkness, he went out into the light and became a champion for human rights for the blind and deaf and disabled. He sat on one commission after another, on the city, regional and state levels. He became a common figure in the halls of Congress. R’ey, Anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom, b’racha uklala, “See, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse”—light and darkness. He chose light, and saw more than many of us who are sighted see.
“See I have set before you today.” “Today” means today and every day Gd sets this choice before each one of us. Who doesn’t hurt somewhere? Who doesn't have a reason to complain about something? We may not choose to be in pain, but we can choose how we respond to our pain. We can allow our aches and complaints to overwhelm us and drown us in darkness…or we can look beyond our hurts, see our circumstances as opportunities for the growth of our souls and channel the energy we would spend in complaining and crying into ways to benefit ourselves and others. It’s a choice, and it’s ours to make.
Dr. Viktor Frankl’s best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was originally titled in German, Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. In it he describes how at the beginning of his ordeal he was marched into a Gestapo courtroom. His captors had taken everything away from him—his family, his home, his freedom. They had shaved his head and stripped his clothing off his body. There he stood before the German High Command, under the glaring lights, being interrogated and falsely accused. He was destitute—a helpless pawn in the hands of brutal, prejudiced, sadistic men. He had done nothing to deserve his fate. He had had no choice in being brought to this miserable point in his life. He had nothing.
But no, that wasn’t exactly true. For he suddenly realized there was one thing no one could ever take away from him—he could choose his own attitude. He could choose whether to be bitter or hopeful. He could choose whether to surrender or fight. He could choose whether to give up or to go on. “The choice,” he wrote, “was his.” B’racha uk’lala, “Blessing or curse?” Dr. Frankl chose b’racha, to affirm life and struggle against his burdens—and in so doing he never gave in to the darkness. He lived where others have perished.
My friends, today is the beginning of the month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah. It’s time to begin to seriously think about our choices. R’ey, Anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom, b’racha uklala, “See, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse”—light and darkness. Today we have a choice. Like Viktor Frankl and the blind man, the implores us, Bacharta bachayim, let us always choose to live in the light as we choose life! Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis