Vayelech/Nitzavim - Life or Goodness, Which Takes Precedence?

The Siege of Leningrad
I heard a report recently on the BBC. A researcher was writing a report on the Siege of Leningrad in World War 2. The siege was romanticized by the Russians as a time of triumph and bravery shown by the Russian people. The siege of Leningrad was the most lethal siege in world history, resulting in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians. The Red Army established a route for bringing a constant flow of supplies into Leningrad. This lifeline did bring military and food supplies in and took civilians and wounded soldiers out, allowing the city to continue resisting the enemy. Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation, where at one point the only food available to a citizen was 125 grams of bread, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible admixtures.

Reports of cannibalism appeared in the winter of 1941–1942, after all birds, rats and pets had been eaten by survivors. Hungry gangs attacked and ate defenceless people.

Against these circumstances, the researcher discovered an interesting fact. Early on in the siege, amongst the flow of supplies, there was an apportionment to the zoo animals. This was reported in the UK's Daily Mail "Only the zoo preserved its star attractions, like ‘Beauty’ the hippopotamus, with special rations of hay."

The researcher was shocked by this action. How could the Russians, in the face of such devastating horrors still apportion food to zoo animals? The researcher turned to her Russian translating assistant and said.

"They should have slaughtered the zoo animals immediately and fed them to the starving women and children!"
The Russian assistant turned to her and said, "What? And if they were cold should they have burned the violins?"

Life and Good
There is an interesting verse in the middle of Parshat Netzavim
Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil,
Dvarim 30:15

Why does the verse put 'life' before 'good'? isn't 'good' referring to Torah and Mitzvot? Shouldn't 'good' be put as the higher value, preceding the reference to 'life'?

The Kli Yakar raises this question and provides an insightful response for the structure of this verse. The Kli Yakar first proposes that "if life is what you request, then look to goodness, and do good in the eyes of Hashem."

Doing Good
Based on this desire, the Kli Yakar suggests this verse comes to address this request, saying "that you shouldn't do good in the eyes of Hashem in order to gain life, rather you should live in order to do good."  Had the verse presented been presented as "set before you good and life" then you may have been lead to believe that doing good is the path to gaining life, making doing good only a 'means' with the 'end' to gain life.

So, the Kli Yakar continues, the phrasing of this verse can be seen as a warning. It is warning to not look for ways to extract demands from Hashem, that you shouldn't look at doing good as the giving you a way to expect to be rewarded.  Rather you should live, in order to do good.

Material Life
You should not look at material life as your main focus in this world. The Kli Yakar explains that you shouldn't request material life from Hashem since if you request life. Though if you do request material life, then it should be to dedicate more time to the service of Hashem, as noted in Tehilim "Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness?".

Living Life for Hashem
The Kli Yakar concludes, based on the quoted verse in Tehilim, that we should love the days of our life so that we can see in them the goodness of Hashem. What is goodness? Torah and Mitzvot.

It is like it says next to "to love Hashem your G-d and stick to Him, since He is your life." This means that this is the purpose of your life. Since there is no other reason that G-d gives you life except for this reason.

Using Our Time to the Fullest
As we see here, there is no formula to extend life, only at the mercy of G-d. No one knows how long they have, but we all do know that we are all limited to 24 hours in a day. It is up to each of us to use that time to the fullest to enhance our connection to Hashem.

I was shocked and impressed by the BBC report, where material items were the focus and highly valued while lives were considered to be secondary. It made me think and contemplate how dear life is.

We are all just as limited with the time remaining to us before the onset of Yom Kippur. We should merit to use this time to better ourselves, and continue to strive to grow spiritually and become close to Hashem.

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