Shabbat Shalom: Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “Behold, I give before you this day the life and the good, the death and the evil… blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your seed…” (Deut. 30:15, 19)
What does it mean, to choose “life”? Is it really an individual choice as to whether one lives or dies? I believe it worthy of note to raise another linguistic curiosity within this context: the Hebrew word hayyim (life) is a plural noun, ending in the two Hebrew letters yod and mem to signal the plural case. I do not know of any other language in which the word for “life” is a plural form; Why is it so in the Hebrew language? Hassidim have a cute play on words which provides an interesting insight explaining the composition of the Hebrew word for “life”: on an occasion of joy such as an engagement, marriage or birth it is customary to celebrate with a “drink,” but only when drinking wine or liquor do we call out, le’hayyim, “to life.” Why not also say le’hayyim when drinking water, which is so basic to the formation of life (remember the amniotic fluids which “break” before an impending birth) and to the continuity of life which is impossible without water ?!
They answer that the Hebrew word for wine, yayin, has two yods, as does the Hebrew word for liquor, yash (literally yayin saraf, “fiery wine”). The Hebrew letter yod is phonetically and homiletically tied to Yid (Yehudi), or “Jew”—a toast usually being invoked to celebrate two Jews coming together in marriage, in joining for a birth celebration, or generally within the familial context of kiddush on Friday evening. The Hebrew word for water, mayim, has only one yod, and God Himself has declared that “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Hence, say the Hassidim, the Hebrew word for life consists of four letters, the exterior letters being het and mem, spelling hom, warmth, love—surrounding two yods completely together and not separated by any other letter. And the beverages which go along with the toast also require two yods (Jews) together as in the Hebrew words yayin and yash.
Despite the sweetness of this explanation, allow me to present an alternative interpretation, which proves a profound theological truth at the same time. In attempting to pictorially describe the creation of the human being, the Bible states: “And the Lord God had formed the human being [Adam] of dust from the ground, and He exhaled into his nostrils the soul [breath] of life, making the human a living being” (Gen. 2:7) Apparently the Bible is here explaining in more graphic language the difficult term tzelem Elokim, image of God, used in the first creation chapter, “And God created the human being [Adam] in His image, in the image of God created He him…” (Gen. 1:27). The Sacred Zohar adds a crucial dimension to the imagery of God’s exhalation into the nostrils of the clay-dust form: “Whoever exhales, exhales from within himself,” from the innermost essence of his existential being.
What this teaches us is arguably the most important insight into the essence of the human being defined by the Bible, the one element which qualitatively separates the human from all other creatures of the earth: a “portion” of God from on High resides within every human being, to which the Tanya (written by Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, late 18th century, known as the Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad movement) adds: mamash, really, palpably, within the very physical human being “resides” the spiritual essence of the Divine, the eternal and transcendent soul.
This idea has enormous ramifications as to how we see the human being, as to how we look upon ourselves. The human being is indeed a composite creature; homo natura and homo persona (see R. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed), a part of the natural world with many of the instincts and limitations of the other physical creatures, but at the same time apart from the natural world, endowed with a portion of Divinity which enables him to create, to change, to love, to transcend both himself as well as the physical world into which he was created; the portion of God within the human being lives eternally just as the God without and beyond is eternal, and empowers the human being to perfect God’s world and redeem God’s world.
The challenge facing each of us is which aspect of our beings we choose to develop, the bestial or the celestial. Idolatry idealized the physical, the bestial: power (Jupiter), speed (Mercury), physical beauty (Venus), a golden calf; Judaism commands that we idealize the spiritual, the celestial: love, compassion, loving kindness, truth… The good news is that to help us in this existential struggle within ourselves is that very portion of God from on High who dwells within us, and that the human being is never alone, that God is always with us, within us, the still small voice which we must listen for and hearken to. Yes, God is Above, but even more importantly God is also Within!
That is why the Hebrew word for life, hayyim, is a plural noun; the “soul of life” is the God who resides within each of us, the essence of our personalities to whom we must return and with Whom we must live our conscious lives if we are to realize our truest human potential, if we are to truly live eternally, together with our partners and progeny in a perfecting world.