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Nitzavim-Vayelech: The Frog, the Fish, and the Freedom to Choose

There is a particularly gruesome “How To” project about which you have probably never been curious, and which is an integral metaphor for the inherent plasticity and malleability of human nature. I refer, of course, to the important lesson on how to boil a frog. The frog, just like man, is adaptable. When you place him in a pot of water and set the pot down on your stove, he doesn’t even flinch, for water is where he feels comfortable. It may not be his pond or swamp of choice, but for that moment, it will do. When you turn the flame up just a bit, to give the frog a nice lukewarm bath, he barely feels it. If you slowly turn the heat up, little by little, notch by notch, the frog will not notice, and will not budge. Even as the heat rises and the water begins to boil, the frog remains unfazed, for the changes are so incremental and inconsequential that he does not register the heat until it is too late. That is how you boil a frog: slowly and subtly.

Like the frog, man is wired to adapt to his environment. In order to survive, we’ve learned how to thrive in all kinds of settings and habitats and under any manner of circumstances. This tendency is often highly adaptive, and is the reason for everything from man’s survival of the Ice Age to your child’s ability to adjust to camp food and living in the wilderness for a month when he or she typically shrieks at the sight of a fly in the house. But it can also manifest in decidedly negative ways. In extreme cases, people may find themselves in abusive relationships and feel as though they don’t know how they got there, having not noticed the heat turning up until matters got too far out of hand to manage. Individuals in these circumstances will often berate themselves for missing the signs and red flags that in retrospect seem so obvious.

On a less extreme note, sometimes we set goals for ourselves and continuously fail to meet them; we wind up in situations marked by apathy and indifference, and we cannot understand how we “let ourselves go” to the extent that we have. Yet this phenomenon is quite common and in fact makes perfect sense. Like the frog, we tend not to notice small, subtle changes or dangers, and in fact we can get used to almost anything, for better or for worse.

The further danger of being adaptable is that in addition to ending up in literal hot water, we also can get so used to living with less than ideal conditions that it becomes daunting and terrifying to consider getting out. Sometimes, escaping the unsavory and harmful situations a person finds himself in seems – and can be – more damaging than simply staying put.

I saw this point illustrated most poignantly and powerfully earlier this summer, when my nephew (yes, another nephew story!) won a goldfish in a camp carnival. Seeing the awe and excitement in my nephew’s eyes as he lovingly settled his new pet into a clean fishbowl and fed him generous flakes of fish food (extra before Shabbos, “just like the mann!”), his parents gently and firmly warned him about the goldfish’s notoriously short lifespan. They explained that the fish, brought home on a Thursday, would be unlikely to make it through the weekend, especially as they could not clean his bowl on Shabbos. My nephew nodded somberly, prepared for the worst, and was thus pleasantly surprised when the fish was still bopping and hopping in its bowl on Shabbos morning. Of course, as the long day wore on, the fish’s tank became dirtier and dirtier. There was a collective breath held as the hours ticked by and Fishy just kept swimming, and a collective exhale after Havdalah, when his water was finally changed. On Sunday morning, to my nephew’s utter dismay and devastation, Fishy was floating ominously upside down in his bowl, never to swim again. Even though he had been warned, the tragic reality flew in the face of my nephew’s optimism, particularly because he could not fathom how the goldfish had survived two whole days in dirty water, only to die once his water was clean.

In consideration of this week’s double Torah portion, I can imagine no better metaphors for some of its most critical messages than those of the frog and the fish. In Moshe’s final hours, all of Klal Yisrael gather together as he continues his parting speech. He relays many important messages to the nation in these Parshios, imploring them to heed Hashem’s commandments, warning them that curses will befall them if they do not, and promising that Teshuva, the opportunity for repentance, is always available to rectify their wrongdoings.

The manner in which Moshe presents the fine line between right and wrong, between adherence and neglect of the Mitzvos, is quite intriguing. He says, (Nitzavim 30:15) Re’eh Nasati Lifanecha es HaChaim V’Es HaTov… HaMaves… V’Hara,”- behold, I have placed before you life, a direct consequence of goodness, and death, which is engendered by sin, and “bad” deeds. Moshe continues to outline the blessings and curses that Hashem will enact in response to the actions of the people, and he reiterates, “HaChaim V’Hamaves Nasati lifanecha… U’Bacharta BaChaim,” I have placed life and death before you, by presenting you with these possibilities; please, choose life (30:19).

Surely, in the face of the curses and punishments promised in retribution for sin, this is not truly a choice! Who, when given the choice between life and death, would willingly and knowingly choose death?! It thus seems ironic and perhaps even superfluous for Moshe, as God’s emissary, to present such a “choice” to the people - is this really even a choice at all? Certainly, the answer is clear: Choose the blessing, choose life!

Choosing life, blessing, freedom, growth, or positive change is unfortunately not so clear-cut. Moshe must make this seemingly obvious statement because rarely is there one moment in which a person chooses life or death; more often than not, it is a series of choices, a succession of actions or continuous inaction that lays the bricks on the path we set for ourselves. Spiritual death, or the absence of growth, is infrequently sudden, and rarely occurs in one single moment. The decline toward spiritual malaise is often insidious, slow, and subtle, much like the temperature that is slowly raised as the frog lounges obliviously in the pot on the stove.

Life, and growth, is a choice that we must make every moment of every day. We must live with our eyes wide open, alert to our surroundings and the manner in which our actions and the actions of those around us may be affecting us on a moment-to-moment basis. Moshe’s message to us in these pesukim is that danger lurks around the corner of spiritual inertia. Spiritual growth is like an upward escalator; if we are not moving up, we are slowly, incrementally, brought downward.

Each day, we are faced with a series of choices, and each moment, Moshe explains, we must actively choose life. If we allow our surroundings to become soiled, if our water is muddied by bad decisions or a lack of decisive action toward growth and change, we not only risk living in filth, but we more harmfully risk being unable to survive once the water is clear. This is what Moshe means when he introduces these pesukim by saying, “Atem Nitzavim Hayom,” you are all standing here today. To stand up and listen closely means to be awake to one’s options, and to take in the opportunities one has in order to make growth-affirming choices. If we are awake, then every moment we can choose life.

Throughout the year, it is quite difficult to keep up the level of alertness required to regulate our surroundings and keep our water clean, so to speak. Life is complex, stressful, and busy, and sometimes an aspect of our lives, whether personal, professional, or spiritual, must be cast aside temporarily; we begin to coast. The month of Elul and the subsequent High Holidays afford us an opportunity to be awake. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah Teshuva 3) describes the Shofar blast as a wake-up call, “Uru Yeshainim MiShinaschem,” - wake up sleepy ones from your slumber! We are being asked, in these days and weeks, to live life with our eyes wide open, and to see in our awakened state the choices we are presented with at every moment. In this time, we must try as much as we can to prevent the water from boiling by checking the temperature daily and not getting too used to things – not only can we miss signs and end up in hot water, so to speak, but we also risk getting so used to something bad for us that we can damage our tolerance of the good. It is in this way that we actually can choose death inadvertently.

Teshuva is a difficult process for this very reason. Throughout the year, we acclimate to our less-than-ideal circumstances and spiritual state of being. We get used to the grime in our proverbial fish tank, and we do not notice that the water around us is beginning to boil. Elul and the Yamim Noraim jerk us out of our stupor. These Parshios are purposely read during these weeks in order to provide us with the extra nudge we need to take in our surroundings, and to make us aware of the ways in which we have, perhaps unknowingly and accidentally, chosen spiritual death through our misdeeds or apathy, by coasting through life and simply getting by.

There is a concept in DBT known as “freedom to choose in the absence of alternatives,” which simply put means that even when it seems like there is only one path to take, or an obvious choice in a given set of circumstances, we still do ultimately get to choose. Action and inaction are both choices, and sometimes the moment calls for one or the other. Choosing life is a constant, proactive, daily choice.

As we shake ourselves awake this Elul, let us consider in what ways we have unwittingly placed ourselves in hot water. What areas of our lives have begun to grow stale? In what ways have our actions or inaction muddied our souls? Change is uncomfortable, but it does not have to be deadly. Before we get so used to our circumstances that any change becomes impossible, let us stop and consider: how can we choose differently? The books of life and death are about to be opened; all we have to do is choose to be awake, and by so doing, we can opt to continuously choose life.

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