D’var Torah for September 7, 2018

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat N’tzavim, we read, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life…” (Deut: 30:19)  We cannot always choose what will happen to us in our lives, but our experiences are lived through our senses and through our minds.  We understand our lives through the lens that our memories provide.  Yet, according to an article in Scientific American, “Every memory you have ever had is chock-full of errors…  memory is largely an illusion.  This is because our perception of the world is deeply imperfect, our brains only bother to remember a tiny piece of what we actually experience, and every time we remember something we have the potential to change the memory we are accessing.”  So, our life’s experience is determined by the lens through which we understand and remember it.
Some of us are naturally positive people, optimists who see that the glass is “half full.”  Others are pessimists.  Two people can have identical experiences but describe them in vastly different ways.  Those descriptions make up the way that they remember and thus re-experience their personal histories.  Those memories allow them to focus on the blessings in their lives, or the various ways in which they seem to be cursed.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to change our natural outlook on the world.  A pessimist is likely to always be a pessimist.  Yet the Torah says, “choose life.”  The Torah wants us to control the things that we do have control over, to choose to find ways to see the blessings that we have.  Both the blessing and the curse are certainly present, but through what lens will we choose to experience our lives and our memories?
If the glass is half empty for us, we have the opportunity to fill it — to seek out and choose the blessings.  As we move toward these final days before Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish calendar gives us a chance to start anew.  We can choose life by finding causes that we believe in and working to make the world a better place.  In doing so, we can focus on what is possible, drawing our attention away from the things that we perceive to be impossible.  When we find our minds defaulting to why “it just won’t work,” we can ask ourselves, “is it possible that it could work? And what would I need to do to help make it possible?”
Before us in this new year we will have life and death, blessing and curse.  Let us choose the possibilities and beauty of life and blessing.
Shabbat Shalom and L’shanah Tovah,
Cantor Sally Neff