I just got back last week from an adventure tour of Costa Rica that I took with my wife, Didi and my daughter, Gable. Over an intense four day period we crossed the country challenging the elements and stretching our own boundaries -flying a tiny plane to the Nicaraguan border; traveling in a small motor boat down narrow jungle canals filled with alligators, poisonous snakes, monkeys and other natural wonders for several hours in the pitch black with torrential rains; walking on the beach in Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast in the dark to catch giant sea turtles returning to the place of their birth thirty years later to lay over a hundred eggs even though only one or two would ultimately survive; then riding on horseback for 3 ½ hours straight up a drenched, mud-filled mountain in the rain forest, horses stumbling with us on them down the steep mountainside; and ending our experience hanging by metal hooks sliding across the raining, wind-swept canopy of the Monteverde cloud forest on a thin steel cable suspended hundreds of feet up in the air. Now that was an experience beyond my everyday life.
For Gable, who is fearless, it was a snap. For Didi and me, it was an opportunity to confront our personal fears and demons and overcome them – a world away from writing sermons, teaching classes, visiting the sick, doing weddings or helping people cope with the grief of their funerals and the deaths of loved ones. We learned once again first hand the truth in the old adage that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. There are few things more powerful in life than that, and as we stepped off the platform a thousand feet up hanging from that thin wire, I understood in the most visceral way possible that the most important lessons in life don’t come from thinking, but from doing.
What makes us human and ultimately sets us apart from all the other animals on the planet is not just our ability to be self-reflective, it is our ability to first be self-reflective and then to act upon that reflection. The quality of our lives is directly a result of the quality of our choices each and every day.
The entire Torah, the entire thrust of the sacred Biblical literature that is the very foundation of Jewish civilization is based on the expectation that human beings not only must make choices every single day, but that our choices determine the very spiritual quality of the universe in which we life. Our tradition believed that God gave us a series of spiritual, religious obligations – mitzvot – and that whether or not we live our lives in accordance with the expectations of God will determine our destiny.
This week’s Torah portion begins with that very challenge: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God which I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God, but turn away from the path which I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.” (Deut. 11:26-28) These words reflect the Biblical author’s understanding that what happens to us in our lives is the direct result of our own actions. The Torah believes in 100% personal responsibility. What we say matters. What we do matters. Who we are matters in the eyes of God and will be reflected in the blessings or curses that fill our lives.
The Torah goes on to teach that what we do affects not only us and our own lives but the lives of future generations as well: “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every person for him or herself…be careful to heed all these commandments which I enjoin upon you; thus shall it go well with you and with your descendents after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of Adonai your God.” (Deut. 12:8…28)
The ultimate lesson for us is that life is not capricious, fated by powers beyond our control, determined by the vagaries of all-powerful gods from on high. The blessings or curses that we experience and that we visit upon future generations are of our own doing. We see the same phenomenon today when we continue to pour chemicals and toxins into the rivers, lakes and ocean. The fish we eat grow more and more polluted, the air we breath contains more and more toxins and the growing rate of cancers of all kinds that affect nearly every family we know will continue to grow more and more out of control.
“See this day I set before you blessing and curse.” The ultimate spiritual challenge is actually simple. Our greatest challenge is simply to have the courage to act so that what we do and who we are is a source of blessings in the world every day of our lives. Imagine the kind of world we could create together if this were our goal and the guiding principle of our lives.