See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. — Deuteronomy 30:15
The Torah reading for this week is Nitzavim, which means “standing,” from Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 61:10–63:9.
What do we have? What is it that we can truly say we possess? Money? Health? Wisdom? Possessions?
God asked Moses this question from the burning bush in Exodus. God asked him, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). The Jewish sages explain that what God was really asking Moses is, “What do you have?” Moses answered: “A staff” (Exodus 4:2). According to Jewish tradition, at that point Moses was already considerably wealthy. In addition, he was wise and strong. So why did Moses answer that the only thing he had was a staff?
The sages explain that Moses understood that for all the gold and silver that he might have at the moment, it wasn’t truly his. It was all a gift from God that He could just as easily take away should He choose to do so. As we read in Haggai, “‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,' declares the LORD Almighty” (2:8). Moses understood that even his knowledge wasn’t truly his own. Should God choose to do so, He could remove that, too, in an instant. As we read in Isaiah, “I am the LORD, the Maker of all things . . . who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense” (44:24–25).
Finally, Moses acknowledged that even his health and strength were not truly his own. As we read in Daniel, “He will become very strong . . . .Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power” (8:24–25). God could take away the strength of the mightiest in the blink of an eye.
So what was it that Moses had? What is it that any of us can ever truly possess?
A staff. The staff in Moses’ hand represented his ability to choose. The staff, which could be turned in any direction and lead Moses on any path, was all that he truly had. And that’s true for us as well. All we really have is the power to choose – what we will say, what we will do, what we will believe, and how we will react to any of the situations that we might find ourselves in.
The power to choose is all we have, but it’s also all we need. The power of choice brings the opportunity for all other blessings.
In this week’s Torah portion we are reminded that we possess this great gift of choice. We read, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” God gives us the option – in all situations – to choose life and prosperity or death and destruction. The choice is completely in our hands.
We must pray to God to help us choose wisely, to know which path is the right one for us, and then to have the courage to choose it.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President