Choosing life over cheering death
We are not predisposed to choosing life, for loving, listening, and connecting can leave us fragile and exposed; choosing life is choosing to be vulnerable.
Earlier last month, Republican presidential candidates held a debate in California, touching on the much-contested practice of the death penalty in the United States.
During the debate, the moderator asked Texas Governor Rick Perry to comment on the fact that his state had executed 234 inmates during his tenure, by far the most under any American governor in modern times.
When the moderator mentioned this staggering number, the studio audience burst into applause, once again cheering after the Texas governor gave his defense of capital punishment in his state.
Regardless of one's stance on the morality (or lack thereof) of capital punishment, it is difficult not to find the crowd's reaction alarming. “Even supporters of the death penalty used to consider execution a solemn state responsibility, not an occasion for celebration," the New York Times said in an editorial titled "Cheering on the death machine".
This raucous celebration of execution is all the more chilling when one considers the fact that the judicial process in capital cases is frequently error-laden. In 2004, Governor Perry oversaw the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, despite well-known and egregious flaws in the forensic evidence.
And just days after Republicans debated the sentencing of Troy Davis, whose innocence in the shooting of a police officer was supported by celebrities and human rights groups, he was executed in Georgia. Many witnesses have recanted their testimony in the case, saying that police pressured them to implicate Davis.
But the death penalty is symbolic of a much greater societal need; even if a system is heavily flawed, capital punishment symbolizes, for many, security in an unpredictable world.
Many feel that executing those who wrong restores moral order, hoping that by eliminating the cause of insecurity, predictability and calm can be restored. Capital punishment, which grants our judicial system power over life and death, gives many the illusion that we are somehow in control and able to prevent harm from reaching our doorstep.
It is therefore no surprise that in such uncertain times an audience would cheer on death with such enthusiasm and gusto, celebrating the one thing – death – that is assured and final in such turbulent times.
The crowd encouraging Perry in his capital punishment efforts is a manifestation of a much more dangerous process that is going on in our world and in our hearts, with many of us channeling our fears and uncertainties into supporting death.
Many are embracing anger at both an individual and a societal level, feeling we must harden our hearts in cynical defense.
The Torah warns us against giving into this very human, yet very self-destructive, tendency. In one of the Torah’s most powerful statements (Deuteronomy 30:19-20), Moses instructs the Children of Israel: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your children may live, by loving the Lord your God, by listening to God’s voice, by clinging to God. For thereby you shall have life…"
The Torah instructs us to choose life – not death – to love, listen and connect with each other. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson explains, choosing life is a commitment to personal happiness, knowledge, meaning, integrity, and dynamism. Choosing life means building relationships and communities that are grounded on principles of mutual love, joy, just treatment for all, and peace. Choosing life is about helping life flourish and thrive among all of God's creatures.
We are not predisposed to choosing life, for loving, listening, and connecting can leave us fragile and exposed. Choosing life is choosing to be vulnerable. The Torah acknowledges this fear, calling on us to be strong and courageous and not to fear.
Attempting to control our world by choosing death is illusory and counter-productive. It shuts us off and shuts us down. In a scary world, the only thing we can control is whether or not we will be afraid.
Choosing life is about finding the courage to embrace vulnerability and the strength to stand up to our fears. Can we stand at the ready with resilience and faith to face whatever the future may hold? Can we embrace the best in ourselves and in each other? Can we drive out the fear and narrowness that leads us to cheer on death, and supplant them with a raucous standing ovation for open-hearted empathy?
It is up to us to decide how to handle the unpredictability of life. We can succumb to anxiety, fear, doubt and uncertainty, latching on to whatever gives us a sense of control, or we can face our destiny using the Torah as our guide.
The Torah outlines a path of courage in which we choose to love, listen, and connect, inviting us to strongly and bravely choose life.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.