Parshat Nitzavim ends with Moshe presenting the ultimate choice to Bnei Yisrael (30:15): ”Re’eh Natati Lefanecha HaYom Et HaChayim VeEt HaTov VeEt HaMavet VeEt Hara,” “See, I have given before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil.” Seemingly, Moshe is offering the Jews the choice of whether to follow the Mitzvot, meriting life, or to ignore them, bringing death upon themselves. However, Moshe also states several Pesukim later (30:19), “UVacharta BaChayim,” “And you shall choose life.” If Moshe wants to offer good and evil as two choices, why does he then only allow us to choose one?
Rashi answers that this is not a command; rather, it is advice to choose correctly, much as one would advise to his friend to choose correctly when it comes to financial matters. (Rav Saadya Gaon suports Rashi's understanding, translating UVacharta not as “You shall choose” but somewhat loosely as “I advise you to choose.”)
Still, is it not obvious that one should “choose life?” With almost no exceptions, anyone will without hesitation, given the choice between life and death, choose life. Why, then, does the Torah, which never wastes words, need to tell us this seemingly obvious fact? Does it also need to tell us to eat every day and wear a coat in the winter?
The answer can be found in the next Pasuk, “Ki Hu Chayecha VeOrech Yamecha,” “For He is your life and the length of your days.” Although there is some debate over whether Hu refers to Hashem or following the Mitzvot, the message is the same. Quite simply, the only life that is really called Chayim is a life of following the word of Hashem.
As Bikurei Aviv (quoted by Maayanah Shel Torah) notes, “Yeish Bnei Adam SheHeim Chayim Kedei Le’echol VeOchlim Kedei Lichyot,” “there are people who live to eat and eat to live.” Their entire existence is dedicated to performing mundane actions to continue their existence, in an endless cycle devoid of meaning. Innumerable people follow this pattern, believing that true life is one of pleasure and materialism. To counteract this misconception, the Torah has to tell us to choose Chayim. Instead of wasting away our lives on meaningless pursuits, we must aim for a life of Torah and Mitzvot that has a real purpose. Only Chayim is real life.
With the Yamim Noraim swiftly approaching, it is imperative to evaluate the spiritual quality of our lives. As we say in UNetaneh Tokef, our physical lives hang in the balance; Midah Keneged Midah, they depend on our Chayim, spiritual lives. Therefore, when we do a Cheshbon HaNefesh, a calculation of our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and our faults, the overarching question must be: am I entirely devoting myself to physical, materialistic goals, or does my life have a higher meaning? This self-analysis will hopefully inspire us to refine our goals and direct our lives toward true Chayim.