choose life

How To Choose Life Over Death

The other day I read an article written by Rabbi Noah Weinberg of blessed memory called “Free Will – Our Greatest Power” originally published over 15 years ago at Aish.com. I only casually mentioned it on this blog post, and thought Rabbi Weinberg’s understanding of free will was worth sharing more in detail.

“How precious is man, created in the image of God.”

Talmud – Avot 3:18

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Unlike other creations, the human being has free will. Within this divine spark lies our potential to shape and change the world.

Proper use of free will beautifies and perfects. Misuse of free will plunders and destroys.

It is a uniquely human endeavor to learn how to use free will properly.

-Rabbi Weinberg

I know that R. Weinberg was writing for a Jewish publication, envisioning a primarily Jewish readership, and probably not considering non-Jewish readers at all, but it does say man (humanity) was created in God’s image, not just the Jewish people and not just Israel, so this should apply to the rest of us too, right?

Actually, according to the article, God did us two favors, not just one. He gave us free will and He told us what He did. That is, we are aware we have free will and can exercise it.

This is somewhat different from what you’ll hear in certain Christian circles, especially those that favor Calvinism (for the record, I don’t subscribe to either Calvinism or Arminianism, because I think this false dichotomy was constructed by people who didn’t interpret the Bible very well). Supposedly we have no free will or only a very limited form of it, because we cannot have consciously chosen God. Only God can choose us. If we had free will, say the Calvinists, it would undermine God’s total sovereignty over the entire universe.

Baloney.

So let’s cut to the chase. What is free will? R. Weinberg tells us:

It is a sweltering summer day. You trudge past the ice cream parlor. Wow – 10 new flavors! Special of the day! Frozen yogurt, too! You go inside and proclaim: “I’ll have double-fudge chocolate, please.”

Is picking chocolate over the vast array of other flavors a “free will choice?” No. It is simply the exercise of a preference, just as a cow chooses to eat hay instead of grass.

“Free will” refers to the type of decision which is uniquely human: a moral choice.

But don’t mistakenly think that morality is the choice between “good and evil.” Everyone chooses to be “good” – even the most evil, immoral people. Hitler rationalized that the Jews were the enemies of the world, so in his mind he justified that as doing “good.”

Rather, free will is the choice between life and death. As the Torah says: “I have put before you, life and death… Choose life so that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

Now before we go crazy making all kinds of assumptions, let’s take a look at Deuteronomy 30:19 in context.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (NASB)

So who’s speaking? Moses. Who’s he addressing? The Children of Israel. Is anyone else there? Arguably, there’s a mixed multitude of non-Israelites, Egyptians and people from other nations who left Egypt with Moses and the Children of Israel.

So, to whom do these verses apply? In their original context, they apply only to the people present and their descendants, but let’s drill down into that a little bit.

Some would argue that because of the (supposed) presence of a “mixed multitude” who had attached themselves to Israel, that the words of Moses, along with the Torah of Moses, is as appropriately accessed by the non-Jew as the Jew, particularly the non-Jew who is a disciple of Rav Yeshua (Jesus), that very specific population I sometimes call Talmidei Yeshua.

But is this so?

Probably not. Here’s why.

Whatever happened to the mixed multitude? If you clicked the link I posted above and read the blog post, you have your answer. It was always understood that the non-Israelites would fully assimilate into Israel by the third generation. The words of Moses applied to these non-Israelites because they had made a multi-generational commitment to attach to Israel and for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to intermarry and become part of the tribes.

In other words, there were no Gentiles who intended for their descendants to remain Gentiles, though attached to Israel in some matter, resident aliens perhaps, who bore the same covenant obligations to Hashem as did the Children of Israel.

However, when Rav Weinberg cites Deut. 30:19 as the definition of free will, the choice between life and death, does that apply, not only to Jews, and not only to Christians, but to all human beings across time?

Everyone who has ever been born, lived, and died will one day stand before God to be judged. Both Christians and Jews believe this. So it would seem that all of us, each and every one, must have free will because we were all created in the image of God and because, based on the fact that we will one day be judged, we all have the ability to consciously choose between life and death.

Yes, the situation we see in Deut. 30 is a specific case and it attached highly specific covenant responsibilities onto Israel (or rather it re-states those commitments as they were originally given at Sinai), but in a much broader sense, Israel and the nations choose between life and death all the time.

Does anyone really choose death over life?!

We all want to be great. But achieving our goals takes a lot of effort. So we get distracted and take the easy route instead. The escape route.

I agree. No one would deliberately, meaningfully choose death instead of life. Rav Weinberg says that even Hitler believed in his own twisted mind that he was doing good and choosing life. He just (grossly) misunderstood what good and life happen to be.

So how do we choose death? Hint: we do it all the time, most of us, anyway.

It’s Sunday afternoon. You’re bored. You grab the remote and slump down into the couch. You could be using your time to learn and grow. But instead you choose the easier option of painlessly passing the afternoon… escaping into the world of TV.

Each day we are confronted with many escape routes. Daydreaming, drugs, checking our email for the seventh time this hour…

Killing time is suicide on the installment plan. And suicide is the most drastic and final form of escape.

Basically, any decision that takes us away from God and puts our personal desires ahead of Him is a form of choosing death, and as R. Weinberg put it, every time we choose death, we’re committing suicide an inch at a time.

Whenever we consider our pain or our desires or our cravings first and then act upon them, we are choosing death.

So just how does one live a life that is flawlessly pious? I mean, it sounds really difficult, and probably pretty boring, right?

R. Weinberg believed he had the answers in five stages.

Stage One: Self-Awareness

You aren’t going to be able to correctly choose life over death unless you start becoming aware of the decisions you’re making and why you’re making them. Choosing to watch a football game over studying the Bible isn’t an accident. It’s a decision. Start monitoring each decision you make. Start watching yourself exercise free will.

Stage Two: Be Your Own Person

What does that mean? I’m “me,” right? Well, maybe. R. Weinberg wrote:

Don’t accept society’s beliefs as your own unless you’ve thought them through and agree with them. Live for yourself, not for society.

Oh man, I could really go off here. I recently quoted Israeli writer Naomi Ragen when she said:

I suddenly remembered something my Harvard-educated son recently told me: “Many American Jews will blindly follow any agenda created by the Liberal establishment because it makes them feel virtuous and like part of the in-crowd.”

Also, in the past several months, the news and social media have been highlighting groups of college and university students who are apparently “majoring in the minors” by complaining about everything from the potential for offensive Halloween costumes to culturally insensitive food on campus.

As Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University quipped, This is not a day care, it’s a university.

I know I’m hammering away pretty hard on political and social liberals, and especially very young ones, but I must admit that putting your own wants first isn’t just a liberal trait. It’s a human trait, and one we are all very capable of exercising, every single one of us.

I don’t object to someone being liberal, or conservative, or Christian, or an atheist, or any other alignment or orientation. I object to people selecting an orientation or alignment without thinking it through and making a conscious and informed decision.

So many people simply follow the herd because it’s the path of least resistance (and because they think it makes them virtuous, part of the in-crowd, and “cool”). I think that’s what R. Weinberg is talking about.

Check your assumptions and make sure that they are really yours and not someone else’s. Don’t be a puppet of society.

Stage Three: Distinguish Between Body and Soul

Weinberg calls this a “raging battle”:

BODY: Gravitates toward transitory comforts and sensual pleasures. Desires to quit, to dream, to drown in passions, to procrastinate. Says: “Give me some food, warmth, a pillow – and let me take life easy.” Looks for the escape of sleep… slipping away into death

SOUL: Seeks understanding, meaning, productivity, accomplishment, permanence, greatness. Confronts challenges. Embraces reality and truth.

Which plays out as:

Soul: “Let’s set some goals.”
Body: “Leave me alone, I’d rather sleep.”
Soul: “Come on, let’s be great!”
Body: “Relax, what’s the big deal if we wait til tomorrow?”

Do you ever feel like this? I do all the time. One example is when I realize I have to get up by 4 a.m. to make it to the gym when it opens at five so I can work out. This is the only time during the weekday I can do this, and I think particularly because it’s winter and cold and dark, I don’t want to do it.

I make myself but it’s never easy. Once I get to the gym and get moving, I’m OK, but that five or ten minutes when I first wake up, I’m arguing with myself about getting up vs. staying in bed and taking a “rest day”.

That plays into the next level.

Stage Four: Identify With Your Soul

This is sort of like saying I’m a soul that has a body rather than a body that has a soul. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry,” realize the soul means “My body needs food.” I know. It’s not that easy. That’s why using your free will to choose life takes discipline and practice, like learning to play a musical instrument (although this also takes innate talent) or working out at a gym.

In his article, R. Weinberg outlines specific strategies for how to train yourself to favor the viewpoint of the soul over the body and thus to more consistently choose life over death.

However, the final battle isn’t between your body and your soul.

Level Five: Make Your Will God’s Will

Weinberg wraps up his missive by stating:

The highest stage of free will is not when you ask yourself, “What does my soul want?” It’s when you ask yourself, “What does God want?” When that is your prime interest, you will have achieved the highest form of living. You are using your free will to merge with the most meaningful and powerful force in the universe: the transcendental.

Free will is the choice between life and death. Attach yourself to God and you will be attached to eternity – the ultimate form of life itself.

Make your will His will. If you do, you’ll be a little less than God Himself. Partners in changing the world.

The final battle is won (or continually being won) when you choose God’s will over your own day after day. As Weinberg said, it’s the highest form of exercising free will and choosing life. You are consciously, deliberately choosing God and life in abundance.

Once you embrace and fully integrate God’s will into your own, any concerns about life being difficult and boring seem rather silly.

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:18-21

Non-Jews have no covenant standing before God, except perhaps the covenant God made with Moses. However, through the mediator of the New Covenant, through Rav Yeshua and through God’s infinite mercy and grace, we have been permitted to partake in the blessings of the New Covenant, even though only Judah and Israel are named participants.

Hence our devotion to our Rav.

Every Jewish person is born into a covenant relationship with God whether they want to be or not. Yet they all still have to make a conscious decision to choose life or death. No one else has ever been born into such a relationship with God, and yet we are still given the option to choose life over death by choosing to make God’s will our will.

It is said that no one comes to the Father except through the Son (which takes a bit of explaining which is why I’m linking to another blog post), and if we believe that, particularly as non-Jews, then choosing to become disciples of Rav Yeshua, whether you call that being a Christian or a Talmid Yeshua, is making that choice.

Every morning when we wake up, that choice is before us. “So choose life in order that you may live.”

When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

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8 thoughts on “How To Choose Life Over Death”

  1. It’s interesting that you bring up Calvinism and Arminianism in this context… as someone who has spent many years thinking about this specific topic (overthinking at times, too) it hit me one day that the debate about free will within Christian circles is *not* about scripture, but about metaphysics, and the debate lost its teeth when I realized that scripture does not share those metaphysical assumptions.

  2. Weinberg: Free will is the choice between life and death. Attach yourself to God and you will be attached to eternity – the ultimate form of life itself.

    Make your will His will. If you do, you’ll be a little less than God Himself. Partners in changing the world.

    You: The final battle is won (or continually being won) when you choose God’s will over your own day after day. As Weinberg said, it’s the highest form of exercising free will and choosing life. You are consciously, deliberately choosing God and life in abundance.

    Once you embrace and fully integrate God’s will into your own, any concerns about life being difficult and boring seem rather silly.

    You quoting Paul: Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

    For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

    Philippians 1:18-21

    Reading this, as led into with the context of your post, I think it can be seen (or perceived, as I want to convey) that Paul isn’t, here, preaching a doctrine of going to heaven at death. Rather, the point of the caption is that one can live as a child of God, that Paul can always choose not to be put to shame by putting “Christ” to shame. Whether he, Paul, remains in this current earthly age or dies as a martyr [that is, whichever of these would happen at any given time, even both] he would be able to decide exalting [or /not] Yeshua via teaching and observable behavior that is clear to people of or open to good will is real.

  3. @Daniel: I see the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism as the creation of a false dichotomy based on an overly literal interpretation of certain Biblical verses without taking the original context into consideration.

    I think any attempt to understand God at more than a surface level will have to involve metaphysics. God isn’t bound by the physical laws of our universe, and neither is the relationship between His sovereignty and our human free will. On the level of linear information, it has to be either-or. Either God is totally sovereign, which means there’s no room in the universe for free will, or God surrendered his sovereignty over our thoughts and feelings, and thus God is not totally sovereign.

    I choose to believe God is totally sovereign and I have free will. This is why I like the general Jewish viewpoint on this matter than than the Fundamentalist/Evangelical perspective. Judaism is a lot more comfortable tolerating seeming contradictions or competative priorities.

    It’s sort of the difference between classical physics and quantum mechanics. Einstein hated quantum theory because it made it look like God was “playing dice with the universe.” But what if the mysteries we encounter when studying the physical universe (dark matter, dark energy, can information really escape a singularity) actually represent a level of complexity and unknowability built in by God?

    That may be why we can’t read the Bible as totally literal and expect to fully understand God and our relationship with Him.

    About 2 1/2 years ago, I wrote a blog post called Schrödinger’s Free Will and God’s Sovereignty in an attempt to explain all this. Granted, it goes in some strange directions, but then the Ein Sof infinite, unknowable, creative God (if you can tolerate a little Jewish mysticism for a second) exists, is real, and is completely outside of our understanding.

    For that reason, I’m willing to accept that I can never know everything (not even close) and that God can be sovereign and I can have free will. As far as I’m concerned, Calvin and Arminius are both out of a job.

    @Marleen: Maybe I chose a poor example of Paul to illustrate what I was trying to say. I don’t think Paul was advocating physical death as such, although it would come to that in order to express his faith, but that “dying to self” was “living for Messiah,” so to speak. I think R. Weinberg was saying something very similar.

    It’s not that we ignore our human needs and desires so much as we continually monitor the decisions we make and why we make them, and choose to wisely prioritize our activities over time. If the soul says, “My body is hungry,” it’s OK to eat. If the soul says “My body is sleepy,” it’s OK to sleep. However, if we use food and sleep (or anything else) as a way to dodge fulfilling our commitments to God and to people around us, we haven’t really “died” to self.

    “Dying to self” is just sublimating our bodily desires and setting the desires of our soul higher, with God’s desires receiving the highest priority of all.

    Granted, as I mentioned in my blog post, this takes a great deal of time, practice, and discipline and we may struggle with this battle all of our lives. But I believe the most holy men and women are those who have been more successful in this battle, people who have learned to listen to their soul and to the voice of God whispering in their ears, then to obey and act upon what they hear.

  4. Exactly! It’s not a coincidence that the either-or, zero-sum view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom crystallized during the early Enlightenment period when western individualism really took a collective hold on the church. This mechanical view of the world and humanity which attempted to define “free will” in the metaphysical context of “determinism” ultimately failed, as you rightly point out we’ve discovered creation itself does not adhere to “deterministic” principles. Scripture, in this more metaphysically Jewish context, makes so much more sense!

  5. I don’t know {sigh}, James; I wasn’t trying to disagree with you, and I don’t disagree with you… on not necessarily being called to die in the sense of being an actual martyr.* I thought that was all already pretty clear. I was adding that the use of some of Paul’s statements to say, “See? When he would die he’d be in glory or would gain [defined by some churches as heaven or eternal destination]! [Therefore] Me too!” is mistaken. I do and did think it’s clear you didn’t say that kind of thing (either directly or by implication, nor by omission).

    But, of course, that would include anything along what could be looked at as a spectrum. Dying to a domination of the body over the soul in the self, especially a self tied to God in many ways.

    *Neverthless, we can remember that the word for martyr is also witness. And I don’t limit witness to “Can I get an a-maey-an?!” {Nor to any formula of evangelization for the church.} To me it is standing for what is true and not slandering people, including Yeshua (but not only). This involves seeing what is actually happening.

    I do appreciate your “take” (which, as I said, I also agree with) that dying to self doesn’t have to mean being a martyr in the literal extreme sense, nor in the sense (which can at times also be extreme) of — just suffering — no particular reason. The point being priorities.

    I thought what you chose was fine.

    I was simply bringing out another detail.

    There’s a saying about dying daily, as Jesus did.

    But still, back to death, how does one (or how would you) fight? Paul (or anyone deciding to, as you put it, “sublimate” base drives) would be able to (if it came to it) suffer (even die) while showing priorities and not breaking down into hateful selfishness or a vacuum of no value. So, as usual, my view is wholistic and including Paul and messianic faith within Judaism. I think your comparison (with Weinberg) is good.

    {Note: I’m not saying any Jewish [or other not Jewish, or Christian] belief about some kind of contact with God or heaven after death is wrong. I’m just pointing out, context helped illustrate (even if it wasn’t your main point, James) Paul wasn’t there saying such.}

  6. I once wrote a blog for a few years, and every article, of some 200 articles, ended with the recommendation to choose Christ.

    I felt then, and I feel now, that our free choice of G-d’s will as expressed by our Rav was a daily, hourly, even minutely decision to choose what G-d would prefer for us by following the example of what Yeshua said to do, and to listen carefully to the Ruach for G-d’s instructions and recommendations.

    My conviction of this has only deepened over the years, but I do not follow even my own recommendations as I would like to, nor do any of us, since we are attempting to be perfect, even as our Father In Heaven is perfect.

    Genesis 17:1-2 (YLT)
    1 And Abram is a son of ninety and nine years, and Jehovah appeareth unto Abram, and saith unto him, `I am God Almighty, walk habitually before Me, and be thou perfect;
    2 and I give My covenant between Me and thee, and multiply thee very exceedingly.’

    Genesis 17:1-2 (CJB)
    1 When Avram was 99 years old Adonai appeared to Avram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai [God Almighty]. Walk in my presence and be pure-hearted.
    2 I will make my covenant between me and you, and I will increase your numbers greatly.”

    Matthew 5:43-48 (YLT)
    43 `Ye heard that it was said: Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and shalt hate thine enemy;
    44 but I–I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those cursing you, do good to those hating you, and pray for those accusing you falsely, and persecuting you,
    45 that ye may be sons of your Father in the heavens, because His sun He doth cause to rise on evil and good, and He doth send rain on righteous and unrighteous.
    46 `For, if ye may love those loving you, what reward have ye? do not also the tax-gatherers the same?
    47 and if ye may salute your brethren only, what do ye abundant? do not also the tax-gatherers so?
    48 ye shall therefore be perfect, as your Father who is in the heavens is perfect.

    Matthew 5:43-48 (CJB)
    43 “You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Love your neighbor — and hate your enemy.’
    44 But I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!
    45 Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun shine on good and bad people alike, and he sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike.
    46 What reward do you get if you love only those who love you? Why, even tax-collectors do that!
    47 And if you are friendly only to your friends, are you doing anything out of the ordinary? Even the Goyim do that!
    48 Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

    Abraham’s instructions from G-d were easier in what ‘perfection’ was than what we see as Yeshua’s way of walking now. We have had the idealism of Greco-Roman thought flung in our teeth for 1900 years as to what that perfection should be. Still, walking habitually in G-d’s will is the point, and fortunately for us, we do have it written down to consider, and once learned, can ask G-d Himself what He wants us to do.

    Jews have a better chance at being properly instructed in doing so, but even the Talmidei Yeshua can learn of G-d’s mind, and what He wants for all of His children by studying the Tanakh and the Brit Chadashah, and attempting to follow what is said there with every choice we make. And blessedly, we do have the Ruach to help us understand what our choices are, step by step through the day, remembering what we have learned, and what G-d would prefer for us as we make every single daily movement.

    Not being well-trained in any of this, I find I fail many times each day, but the struggle to keep attempting the same steep path to be like our Rav is of itself good exercise for the soul. According to Jewish thought, the fact that I have tried at all is valuable to G-d.

    I do make some small progress, as does anyone who actually attempts to think of what G-d wants of us, but in the end what we do is only a small part of our salvation and spiritual growth. It is all the gift of G-d, whether we do anything good in our own strength, it is because He gives us the strength, or it is enabled by His grace to be done at all.

  7. Is the reason, James, that you suggest you might not have chosen the best passage of Paul (or possibly of another) because of something to do, maybe, with you meaning, by decisions, things more like being a person who loves a wife (and children) instead of running around with whoever seems fun for the moment? I can see that there might be a preference to see how nice life can be when one chooses a life of a soul simply connected to God (rather than a life or death of one going “above and beyond” so to speak, as Questor has differentiated). And I see that you brought out being successful at making the better choices is probably for advanced souls or people who’ve been at it for a while. I looked back over your opening post, and would like to go back over “step” 1: becoming aware that you are making decisions. These steps are very good. There are people who are outstanding in their work life, doing a job to make money, but who can’t figure out they are making decisions in their personal life and how they treat others.

  8. Marleen asked:

    Is the reason, James, that you suggest you might not have chosen the best passage of Paul (or possibly of another) because of something to do, maybe, with you meaning, by decisions, things more like being a person who loves a wife (and children) instead of running around with whoever seems fun for the moment?

    As I’ve probably said before, when text is the only medium we have available for communication, it’s very possible for me to misunderstand what people are saying, or to be concerned that I’ve been misunderstood.

    That’s pretty much what I was thinking.

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