You Shall Choose Life

By Shlomie Naparstek, Myrtle Beach, SC
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016 

“So,” says the teacher, “can someone please give me a precise definition of “life”.

The students wrinkle their foreheads in concentration, not fully  understanding what the teacher is getting at.

Teacher: Again, does someone want to share the definition of life with this class?

Student A: The opposite of death?

Teacher: Now, now. If so, I would equaly be able to define death as the opposite of life. I’m looking for an actual definition.

Student B: What about vitality? Does that define life?

Teacher: Vitality? Ok, lets take out the dictionary and read the definition for “vitality”.

Students scurry to fetch a dictionary.

Teacher turning to student A: Please read for the  class the definition of “vitality”.

Student A: “a lively or energetic quality”

Teacher: Hhhhmmm, but what of someone or something that has no vitality, would we then say that that particular thing has no life?

Student C: Movement! Something that moves is alive!

Teacher: Indeed, but what of something that doesn’t have the ability to move, say a plant, would we not define that as something with life? On the other hand let us take for example water, which moves an awful lot, would we call water more alive than the plant?

Student B : OK, let me try again; growth. All living things grow.

Teacher; I’m afraid that too is a superficial answer. Would you render any person, organ or plant that has stopped growing as dead simply from the fact that it no longer grows?

Students stare blankly at the teacher.

Teacher: Before we continue, let me be clear in what I am seeking.. All those answers are not really wrong, for in a certain sense they do define life; in the sense that they all personify a being that is alive. By contrast, their opposites personify something that isn’t. However what I am asking  is for you to describe to me something that is really alive, truly existent. What I mean by that is, that when I seek a definition in the realm of truth, it must be the essence of all the sub definitions that might also apply, namely those cited already. In other words, that precise description that it alone will give truth to all the other external descriptions that you all have been citing.

Student A: I don’t understand what isn’t true with what we have said? What else are you looking for that is more true?

Teacher: Hold on and let me bring up another point! For something to be true, it must endure. It cannot be subject to change due to a particular circumstance or environment. If it is truth, then it is true all the way through. We must understand that axiom before we go further.

Student D: Wait a minute, I must get something clear. If it’s true what you say about truth, then this principle applies also in the case where something would have a particular characteristic or feature for a while or even for a long time. As long as it won’t endure forever, it can’t possibly be called truth even while paralleling the truth for that given moment.

Teacher: Exactly! That is a very important point and allow me to explain it to the class in simpler words.

As you all know, the ashes of the Para Aduma were mixed with water , in the times of the Beis Hamkidash, for purifying the impure. According to Halacha this water must be the particular מים חיים– the living waters, meaning water that has a consistent flow. The Talmud says that there was a particular river that would flow consistently for 7 years before stopping for just a short period of time. This river was called  מכבזין מים–the lying waters, and was unfit to be used for the Para Aduma. Meaning, not only was this river unfit for use at its non flowing period, but even when it was flowing it was still unfit because the flow wasn’t true. Although at the moment it looked like it was flowing but at its essence one just couldn’t call it a flowing river because to be or to have a particular thing in its true sense, that thing must endure forever. The fact that it flowed for a while doesn’t define what it really is. For the Para Aduma we need “Flowing Water”.

Student C: Ok so back to life….

Teacher: So I’m looking for the wording that will successfully define true life. Something that is intrinsically alive. Something that always endures and will forever be know as life.

Student D: So it’s got to be something that lasts forever and is intrinsically alive. That sounds like G-d to me. Nothing else in this physical world could possibly fit that description.

Teacher: Correct again! That is exactly what I am getting at. Ultimately, one must conclude that the only ultimate form of life is G-d himself. All the creations come and go and they can’t truly be rendered alive. It is particularly G-d himself that is intrinsically life and all else is in comparison false. It is He who then gives this special quality to certain creations for certain periods of time. So the fact that certain things and beings have those descriptions you all gave before, is only because they get it from the true living “being”.

This is what explained in Chassidus the difference between חי’ להחיות and חי’ בעצם.  חי’ בעצם is intrinsic life which isn’t reliant upon another life force to generate it. חי’ להחיות is when something is but a conduit to bring life to another entity. I can give you an example; the modern civilized  electric system. When electricity comes to our homes  it is through the wires that bring it from the central wires in the street. They in turn bring the electricity from the central city power plant which is like a  huge battery that can generate electricity for the entire city. It in turn, gets the electricity from a power source namely a river with a dam or a nuclear plant etc. The river for example, with it’s tremendous strength, will turn the  power turbines to generate the electricity which will then flow through the system ultimately giving power to your light bulb at home. All those wires don’t intrinsically have the electricity, rather they are but a mere conduit for it to flow onward – חי’ להחיות . The river on the other hand has in itself the power to produce. It is all the while self sufficient and is not being powered by any former entity. The river (in comparison to the wires) is חי’ בעצם. This is all relatively speaking, however in truth, as you all surely understand, G-d is the only real חי’ בעצם, since the river itself (as well as all of nature) is also generated by a higher force thus giving us our conclusion that the true definition of life is G-d!

Students contemplate for a while and then….

Student C: Ok, so the definition of life is G-d. Did you just want to give us a random theology lesson?!

Teacher with a smile: Actually, no! I’m a firm believer in ending off my lessons, especially the deep ones, with something practical to take home. In fact it is the coming point  that was my objective all along!

I was thinking long and hard how to bring out that  point. I decided to relate a story which will hopefully convey the message. At first when I heard this story it was just like any other, but after thinking long and hard about it, I came to the  realization that it actually contains within it the very foundations for a successful and productive life.

Here is how it goes:

The veteran Chassid, Rabbi Uziel Chazanow, was born and raised in Russia during the pre-revolutionary years. As a child he had gotten a taste of Chassidus from his dear grandfather who taught him Tanya. As young boys, Uziel and his brothers would argue to no end about the different then-prevailing ideologies. While young Uziel was adamantly opposed to the ideas of communism, his brothers, and especially the one closest to him in age, Grisha, strongly endorsed it. Grisha would speak about equality and total bliss that the communist reign will bring about but Uziel did not want to hear any of it. Back and forth they argued each stubbornly holding on to their own beliefs. As a young teenager Uziel, set out on his life ambition to learn in the great Lubavitcher Yeshiva, Tomchei T`mimim, infused within him due to his early taste of Chassidus. Unfortunately, throughout the years of the first world war and the revolution, he lost contact with his family and did not  see the members of his family for many years to come. After the Communists took over and they launched a war on religious Judaism, Uziel and his fellow students went on self sacrifice to ensure the continuation of just that, even at the cost of their lives. Time and again they went out of their way to perform another ritual , prayer or build a Mikve for the Jewish communities throughout the Soviet Union. Many of Uziel’s friends were caught and never  heard from again. Uziel, personally, learned the art of שחיטה (ritual slaughtering) to aid his brethren in that  aspect. Many years passed during which time Uziel married and raised a family, all under the Stalinistic oppression and always on the run from the authorities for his illegal activities. One night, as Uziel was making his way home from an illegal slaughtering, done underground, with his knife still concealed within his cloak, he had a sense that someone was following him. Uziel started running, but the all elusive pursuer was hot on his heels. As he rounded a corner he felt a hand grasp his shoulder from behind capturing him in a vise-like lock and a voice calling out “Uziel”! He turned around to see a well built, smartly dressed Russian soldier. Along his lapel, Uziel noticed a row of colorful metals, apparently this soldier was no ordinary one. He was an officer or even a general. But then after taking a closer look at his face, Uziel noticed something familiar. Slowly it dawned on him that standing before him was  Grisha, his very own brother that he hadn’t seen for so many years! “Uziel,” said Grisha, “ it is dangerous for us to talk now, just tell me where you reside and I will come for a secret visit later.” After giving his brother the address, Uziel rushed home and waited for his brother to appear. Later that night there was a knock on the door and in walked Grisha. After embracing for a short moment, Grisha said to Uziel, “Unfortunately I cannot stay for too long or I will be putting my life in danger. As you see I have joined the communist party and the Russian army as well. But before I leave I must ask you one question. Do you remember those arguments that we used to have? Do you remember how I used to try to convince you of the major advantages of the communist way? My dear brother, it was not only me. Millions of people thought that with the coming of communism all of lifes problems would be solved and that our country would finally reach its height of glory. We were all totally convinced of the benefits of equality and of the extreme socialist ideology. But you, Uziel, were adamantly opposed. You held back against the social current with remarkable strength. Your opinion differed from that of the your entire family. Now, so many years down the line I can tell you with total conviction that your were totally right all along, on every single last point. My friends and I, although too scared to voice it even to each other, all realize that we have become mere slaves to a horrible dictatorship and all in the name for the “good” of the motherland. Tell me, my dear brother, how did you know and how did you see those major flaws ahead of time when the society around you didn’t?”  Do you know what Uziel replied? He brought out a lesson from the Chumash! “ I am no prophet” replied Uziel, ”However there is one principle that I have had from day one and upon it I run my life. Regarding the story of Avraham’s descend down to ארץ פלישתים , the Torah relates that King Avimelech asked Avraham why he had lied about Sara that she was his sister, which in return nearly caused Avimelech to sin with her. Avraham replied כי אמרתי רק אין יראת אלוקים במקום הזה והרגוני על דבר אשתי – he had seen that there is no fear of G-d in that place and that enough sufficed for him to suspect the populace of murder to acquire his wife! I use this principle as my guide in life. You ask me how I saw the flaws in the new system. You ask me how I knew of all the problems it would bring and how it would eventually turn into a devastating dictatorship. To be honest with you, I didn’t! I heard the same arguments as you and as everyone else and I have the same impressionable mind as everyone else. Yet I saw that אלוקים במקום הזה  אין יראת so I took my leap of faith and came to the conclusion that it will never be good!

My dear students, listen well. One must be aware that the most powerful tool in the human’s hand is his mind. On one hand, with it a person feels he has reached the ultimate. To him, his mind is totally objective and with it everything is seen as crystal clear truth. In reality it is the greatest tool, the faculty  that sets us apart from  other creations and gives us the eternal advantage to be able to grow physically and spiritually . On the other hand though, if one just knows how, with his mind he has the ability to totally control another’s to the extent of total subservience. Don’t get me wrong, the art of mind control has been used for good purposes too, as seen with the boom in  the studies and science of psychology . It does however prove my point of the vulnerability of the mind despite it being the most central and important tool we do have.

The mere thought of it is scary. To comprehend our vulnerability in this crazy world, brings to mind the big question of how one can be sure of anything. Grisha’s question is the cry of all day to day existence. In life’s every turn we are faced with the major dilemma between the truth and a possible façade. Even with the most trust worthy situation or person, you just never know what really lurks underneath. Oh how good would it be to have an external support on whom we can be certain with, beyond the shadow of the doubt, to rely upon and to trust.

But we do. By fully comprehending how Hashem is the very definition of life and that everything else, in comparison, is false, the choice then becomes easy in this regard. It is up to you to evaluate if a particular situation, opinion, person or investment is infused with Hashem’s will, and if it is, you have nothing to worry about, for surely it is the intended path to take, the path of life. ובחרת בחיים – choose life!

Student A: What a relief!

Teacher: Truly. OK you are dismissed.