We Must Choose Life
December 22, 2023
By Susan DeMari

There’s a funny story about a rabbi who was caught in a terrible flood. He climbed to the roof of his shul. A neighbor came by in a rowboat and offered to rescue him. “Not necessary,” the rabbi replied, “God will take care of me.” Then a police helicopter flew overhead and offered to drop a ladder to him. “No thank you,” the rabbi called back, “God will take care of me.” The flood waters kept rising. By the third day the synagogue was totally submerged and the rabbi drowned. Arriving before God, the rabbi asked in anguish, “Why didn’t you help me?”  “I did,” answered HaShem.  “I sent a boat and a helicopter.”

Sometimes, oftentimes, we do not see the hand of God in what happens to us. Such is the case in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, when Joseph explains to his brothers that by selling him into slavery, they were actually following God’s will and allowing God to save them from the famine. “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. It was not you who sent me here, but God.”

But how are we to know when something is an act of our own free will and when it is an act of God’s will?  And what does this tell us about our ability to make decisions? Do we really have choices or is everything we do the result of God’s plan?

Judaism tells us that we not only have the right but the duty to make choices in our lives. We are told that God set before us life and death and that we should choose life. That does not mean that bad things do not happen to good people, nor does it mean that everything that happens is necessarily for the best.  Rather, as this section of the Torah illustrates, each of us has the opportunity in our lives to transcend difficulties, to overlook the past, to find meaning in even the most disastrous things that happen.  We cannot know whether we or others created a situation or whether God did, as we read in Isaiah, “for My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways.”  But we know how we are supposed to behave regardless.

As the Director of Community Security for the Buffalo Jewish Federation, I deal with this issue on a regular basis. Can we actually prevent evildoers from trying to disrupt our Jewish way of living or is it God’s will that they do so? Is there a value in preparing for worst case scenarios or are they inevitable and nothing we do will stop them?  To me the answer is clear: we must choose life.  We may not know how things will turn out, but that does not mean we should be fatalistic. We must be prepared.  We must be proactive.  We believe that God is on our side, even though we may not always see how, and we know that we must at all times act in accordance with the mitzvot of our Torah.   So, whether it is a flood we are trying to survive or trying to find meaning in the decisions we make, look at, and accept, the resources available to help you and make a conscious decision to choose life by being prepared.  Attend security trainings when offered, be part of a proactive team and work together as a community to Secure Jewish Buffalo.

Susan DeMari is the Director of Community Security at the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

We Must Choose Life - Jewish Thought of the week 2022