In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, Moses begins to sum up what it means to be a people of God:

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)

Choose life? Is that not obvious? Are we not hard-wired to choose life? [until here for the weekly eblast, the rest on the webpage]

This verse has been utilized throughout the ages to urge us as individuals, and as communities, to be safe, to be careful, especially in situations in which we often tell ourselves otherwise. From rabbis prohibiting smoking and drug use to Jewish professionals warning against assimilation, these words have served as a prooftext, that is, an anchor in scripture for the point that the speaker wishes to get across.

I too have often used this text, taken (in the traditionally Jewish way) out of its original context, to make my case. But now, in this particular time of my life, I am drawn to the interpretation of Rabbi Yishmael, found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 19a/1:7). In a discussion of the various commandments which are incumbent upon parents toward their children he says that one must teach one’s child a vocation. That is, life will be preserved only if one knows how to make a living!

The educational thinker Parker Palmer had struggled for much of his younger life and was having a hard time defining his own vocation and fine tuning his career. He writes that at some point, in his thirties, he remembered an old saying from his Quaker tradition: “Let your life speak”. At the time, he thought that those words meant: “Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.”

But looking back on that time in his sixties he had this to say:

Today, some thirty years later, “Let your life speak means something else to me, a meaning faithful both to the ambiguity of those words and to the complexity of my own experience: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” (Let Your Life Speak, Jossey-Bass, 1999)

What this says to me is that it’s not so much about choosing a vocation as a way to make a living as it is listening to what life has to say about how to live. “Choosing life” is essentially choosing to listen to life.

May we all be inscribed in the book of (listening to) life!