As a child of the 80s, almost every movie I watched growing up was part of a trilogy: Indiana Jones, The Karate Kid and of course, Star Wars (there were only three back then). So when one of my seminary professors asked us to select a modern film and analyze its theological messages, I said, “That’s easy. Back to the Future.”
For those of you who missed the 80s, a brief synopsis: Michael J. Fox plays Marty McFly, a teenager whose family life is still made miserable by the bully who teased his father in high school. Misunderstood by his parents and teachers, Marty befriends disgraced nuclear physicist Dr. Emmett Brown.
Dr. Brown, or «Doc» as Marty calls him, has refurbished a 1981 Delorean so that it can travel through time. A series of even more ridiculous things happens, and Marty ends up transported back to 1955, the year his parents met.
It isn’t long before Marty unwittingly ends up in the middle of his parents’ love story. For a few frightening days it appears that, because he has prevented his young dad from being hit by a car, his parents may not meet the way they originally had, and Marty will never be born. Ultimately, though, his intergenerational meddling changes his parents’ lives, and his own, for the better.
But, remember, this is a trilogy, and soon Marty finds himself messing with destiny again. It takes two whole movies—a frightening look at himself in the far-off future of 2015, a trip through a scary parallel version of 1985, and a romp through the Wild West—to sort out the messes that he’s made. But, ultimately, he finds himself back in 1985 unscathed, and prepared to make better choices for his own future.
Back to the Future has a number of important messages: Believe in yourself. Don’t let bullies run your life. Don’t do something stupid because somebody calls you «chicken.» Your parents were once cool young people before they had you.
But the most pertinent message of the series is this: What we do at any moment in time has an indelible, and sometimes unforeseeable, consequence for the future.
«I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life» (Deut. 30:19).
In parshat Nitzavim, which we read this morning, the Israelites are assembled and brought into an everlasting covenant with G-d. We are reminded that there are consequences to our actions and inactions, and that the choice to act is ours.
Our adherence to the covenant would bring us long life, fertility, and security in our land. Our disloyalty to G-d, through the worship of idols and the breaking of G-d’s law, would result in barrenness, famine, plague, disease, and exile.
In Nitzavim, the choice seems obvious. Who WOULDN’T choose life and blessing over death and curse? For our ancestors, choosing life meant following the rules of the Torah to the letter, so that G-d would provide us with life-giving rain.
But what does it mean for us to choose life today? What are the blessings we hope to bring about, for ourselves and for the world we live in, and how do we go about choosing them? And in any given situation, is there only one right choice?
This question figures heavily in Lionel Shriver’s novel The Post-Birthday World. Irina, the novel’s heroine, is generally satisfied with her life. She enjoys her work illustrating children’s books, and the company of her long-time boyfriend.
One evening, however, Irina finds herself dining alone with an old friend. It is his birthday and, at the end of the evening, Irina finds herself desperately wanting to kiss him.
From here on in, each chapter is written twice. The first version records what happens if she gives into temptation; the second recounts what happens if she restrains herself.
Some of the ripple affects are minor: a pie that does or doesn’t set in the refrigerator, a painting project that does or doesn’t get finished. But some of the results are life-defining: a brilliant piece of art that does or doesn’t get created, a marriage that does or does not take place, a child that is or is not conceived.
Unlike many books and films where multiple paths are offered, there is no sense that one of Irina’s lives turned out significantly better, or that one of them was the path she was «destined» to follow. In both stories, she experiences love and loss, and discovers the best and worst of herself, and the person she’s chosen to be with.
In the movies, an external incident like a bolt of lightning or a missed train determines the different outcomes. But here, it is Irina’s own decision that determines her destiny. In both stories, it all comes down to one seemingly small, seemingly simple choice. To kiss, or not to kiss.
«I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.» (Deut. 30:19).
We imagine that this speech, Moses’s last, was a moment of high drama. The whole community of Israel was assembled. Perhaps over a million people stood silent at the edge of the Jordan, clinging to Moses’ every word.
It is this drama that we are trying to emulate on Yom Kippur. With fasting and meditation, chanting and beating of breast, we are hoping to reach some kind of epiphany, a moment of clarity.
We spend this season trying to bring ourselves to a transcendant place, to commit ourselves once again to choose life and to be a part of G-d’s covenant. But when the gates have closed, and we have all gone back to our everyday lives, we are not free from this awesome responsibility to choose life.
Because life is not lived in the transcendant place. Life is not chosen in one big moment at the foot of a mountain. Our important choices are not always ushered in by divine voices and bolts of lightning. Life is chosen here, on the ground, in every moment of every day.
Just as our fictional heroes and heroines discovered that a single decision, or indecision, could dramatically alter the course of their lives, so too do we realize that our lives are affected by small choices we make every day.
Recently someone pointed out that, whenever a fictional character goes back in time, there are many warnings not to change anything, not even a little bit, because of the massive impact it might have on the unfolding timeline. But here in the present, we rarely imagine that the small actions we take can do anything to change our lives, or our world, in a meaningful way.
We need look no further than the Torah to see how a person’s life and the destiny of their descendants pivots on a single action:
Some of these choices yielded positive results: For the Israelites in Egypt, it was the women’s courage to disobey. For Hannah, it was the courage to offer a prayer. For Solomon, it was valuing wisdom over wealth.
What will it be for us?
Some of these choices resulted in terrible consequences: For Adam and Eve, it was a piece of fruit. For Moses, it was losing his patience. For Aaron, it was bending to the will of the masses. For David, it was refusing to admit his own error.
What will it be for us?
We never know which choice we make is going to be life-defining. Sometimes it is only in hindsight that we are able to see the crossroads and turning points in our own lives.
Awareness of this chain of consequence can make even the smallest decision look daunting. We may take the lesson of these stories to be that we should be cautious, that we should think before we act. And this is a good lesson, as long as we do not become paralyzed by the possibility of making the wrong choice. Because choosing life does not mean avoiding mistakes. Choosing life means striving to do good.
And, so, the lesson we can take from these stories as the gates of repentance draw closed is this: Do one thing. Do one thing for good.
We may sometimes feel «daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief». Deciding to do one good thing—any good thing—might relieve some of the pressure we feel to heal everything that is broken in our world. Even within our local Jewish community, there are people pursuing justice, one small step at a time.
For instance, Kol Tzedek synagogue in West Philly, has chosen to devote this year to abolishing medical debt in Philadelphia. Rabbi Ari Lev Fonari said recently that, «Health is a human right…We don’t believe medical debt should exist.»
In partnership with RIP Medical Debt, their community is raising money with which to purchase unpayable medical debt from Philadelphia hospital systems at deeply discounted rates. This means that a donation of $100, which might normally feel like a small drop in an endless bucket, has the power to eliminate $10,000 in unpaid healthcare costs for vulnerable and low-income households, something that might literally make or break an individual or a family financially.
Another group chipping away at the world’s injustices is Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism—our movement’s advocacy and social justice organization. Leading up to the 2020 election, RAC-PA was created to mobilize activists in our own state. This small but dedicated group, which included a handful of volunteers from Kol Ami, contacted more than 21,500 voters, and stopped more than 4900 ballots in Montgomery County from being thrown out.
Having pulled off a successful civic engagement campaign, RAC-PA is shifting its momentum to the even larger goal of pursuing racial justice. This, too, is an enormous undertaking, and so RAC-PA has decided to focus on doing one good thing: protecting voting rights, specifically redistricting in response to the recent census. This campaign will officially launch on September 30th at 7 p.m., and I hope that our small community will be big a part of it.
Finally, here at home, our Shomrei Adamah/ Sustainability Committee will soon be inviting you to participate in Brit Hazon, an initiative that seeks to create a more sustainable world through small, personal commitments. In signing up for Brit Hazon, you commit to follow one of six guided paths for six weeks, including: Transitioning to a Plant-Rich Diet, Reducing Food Waste, Household Waste, and Energy Use, Buying Local and Buying Less. I’ve signed up for «Bars not Bottles», which means I’ll be seeking out more sustainable packaging for my cleaning products.
In the face of rising temperatures, wildfires and hurricanes, this feels like such an infinitesmally small commitment, and one that might still be difficult to fulfill. But as we are told in Pirke Avot (2:16): It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.
We have no way of knowing which of our choices will be the one that defines our lives, or changes the world for the better. All we can do is take positive steps towards the life we want, for ourselves and for the world we live in.
It might be difficult to figure out what to do first. It might be tempting to stay where we are rather than to risk upsetting our delicately balanced lives, or failing at the one thing we are trying to do. But inaction is not an option in Judaism.
In Deuteronomy, as we are given instructions as to how to return lost property, we are commanded, lo tuchal l’hitalem, literally you must not hide yourself from this responsibility, even though it might not seem significant. You cannot do nothing. You cannot be indifferent.
We must recognize that, even when our actions yield small results, they are part of a much larger picture than what we can see. We have little control over what ultimately becomes a curse or a blessing. We can only control the choices we make, right now, in this moment.
At the end of the final Back to the Future movie, Marty is given the opportunity to return to the same spot where he had made a life-changing mistake. Even after all of his time-traveling, he doesn’t realize that this is the choice that will define his entire future. But, having learned what can happen when you let someone push you around, he chooses differently.
Afterwards, Marty’s girlfriend notices that the words on a piece of paper she has brought back from the future—words condemning Marty to a lifetime of failure—have been erased.
«What does it mean?» She asks Doc.
Doc replies: «It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. It’s what you make of it!»
Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda once said: «Days are like scrolls, write on them only what you want to be remembered.»
This image is not lost on us on Yom Kippur, as we envision the Book of Life closing, our fate inscribed and sealed within its pages. But we need to remember that we, too, are holding the pen. Our actions matter. Even the smallest steps we take can make a difference.
As we begin the new year, we ask for the courage to shape our lives and the world around us, one good action at a time. And as the pages of the Book of Life turn from 5781 to 5782, we ask for the wisdom to write carefully. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz