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“May you be inscribed in the Book Of Life.”
Millions of Jews express this sentiment in countless synagogues during the High Holidays. But what does the saying mean? God isn’t human, so God couldn’t write names in a book. On the other hand, God is all-powerful, so God could presumably do whatever God wants. Say God does have a book. Is it a Siddur-like book or a Torah-ish scroll — or a Kindle? What does it take to be written into and/or deleted from the Book Of Life? Does it come down to following the Ten Commandments or is it a more general, Santa-esque, naughty-or-nice kind of thing? What, exactly, is the Book Of Life?
“You are your own Book Of Life,” says Rabbi Yudy Shemtov, senior rabbi and executive director of the Lubavitch Chabad in Yardley. “You have a beginning, a prologue, an epilogue, chapters, action, drama, love, tragedy, settings, dialogue, symbolism and, most of all, character.”
Other area rabbis agree with Shemtov. Each one of us writes our own Book of Life, they say, and the High Holidays are the time to read the manuscript, make corrections and plan the next chapter. To believe in a mystical, magical Book Of Life that only God controls, the rabbis say, is to abdicate responsibility for our books to an editor in the sky and miss the very essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“I don’t believe that there is a literal Book Of Life or an old man with gray hair writing it,” says Rabbi Michael Knopf, assistant rabbi at Temple Har Zion in Penn Valley. “But I do believe that our actions have consequences. I believe that there is a power in the universe, a collective whole, in which every activity that we do, large or small, even morally neutral things, impacts us and impacts others.
“For that reason, I think we should live our lives believing that, in fact, someone is observing all of our actions, all of the time, and writing them or recording them,” Knopf says. “How would you live differently if you felt that you were being watched all the time? Imagine that everything you do in private is public. What kind of person would the world see? Which actions would you do — and which would you not do?”
To be clear, the Book Of Life was real to ancient Hebrews, as it still is to many Jews and Christians. The book is mentioned in many prayers and throughout the Torah. For these observers, the Book Of Life is part of a holy literary trinity that includes the Book Of Death, which is mentioned in the Talmud, and a third, untitled book.
“In the section of the Talmud dealing with Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Akiba talks about the Book Of Life, the Book Of Death, and the book of the in-between, which is not given a name,” Knopf says. “He posits that, on Rosh Hashanah, God writes the names of the completely righteous in the Book Of Life and the names of the completely wicked in the Book Of The Dead. But everyone else gets written in the third book and has their sentence suspended with a wait-and-see approach. That was interpreted as meaning that you had a chance to redeem yourself and be taken out of the third book and put into the Book Of Life.”
These books, Shemtov maintains, are metaphors. “God is the reality of all of existence and the source of all of existence,” he says, “but any physical words or imagery that we ascribe to him are metaphors.”
What are the books metaphors for? Knopf suggests looking at them through the lens of depth theology. “Depth theology is the thinking that what we really encounter when we encounter Judaism are answers to questions that ancient Jews asked,” he says. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the proponents of that line of thinking. All of the challenges and sufferings of life were examined by rabbis who then came up with answers. Those answers are often stories, filled with metaphors, that we tell over and over to help explain the world in which we live. So we have the answers, but we no longer have the questions that inspired them.
“Instead of just accepting those answers, Heschel challenged everyone to recover the questions. The Book Of Life, the Book Of The Dead — these are perfect examples of this. What was the intent behind them? What was the question that rabbis were trying to answer with them? Well, it seems that the question was, ‘Why do some people live and some people die?’ ”
Rabbi Peter Rigler, of Temple Sholom in Broomall, puts a finer point on it. “No one asks ‘Why did this happen?’ at weddings,” he says. “They only ask that at funerals. And even the death of someone who has lived for many years is normally not questioned. The questioning arises when someone dies young, through illness or accident. It is in trying to make sense of tragedy that we seek answers from God.”
“When God’s reality challenges our reality, then we question Him — His motives, power and, sometimes, His existence,” Shemtov says. “When the challenges are greater, the questions are greater. We will never have the answers, and they wouldn’t change the reality of what has happened. But still, we question.”
Having a Book Of Life and a Book Of The Dead may have answered ancient Hebrews’ questions about who lives and who dies, and it still has resonance for modern Jews. Indeed, it is the question captured in the bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (Avon), by Rabbi Harold Kushner. In it, he, too, seems to discount the power of a Book Of Life.
“I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things,” he writes. “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it no more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.
“God does not cause our misfortunes,” Kushner continues. “Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.
“The question we should be asking is not, ‘Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?’ That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be, ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?’ ”
This, the rabbis say, is the question every Jew should ask himself or herself during the High Holidays. “God gave humans free will, and part of that is the responsibility of self-evaluation,” Rigler says. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the times to examine your Book of Life, atone for your wrongs and forgive those who have wronged you. Close that chapter and move forward, with purpose, into your next chapter with the intent of being a better friend, spouse, parent, child — a better Jew.”
Knopf agrees with that concept. “Instead of wondering what God is writing about me and if I will make it into the Book Of Life, I ask myself questions. If I am writing a book about my life, using the past year as evidence, how do I judge myself? Do I deserve to be in a Book Of Life? Do I deserve the blessings that I have? These are haunting questions for me. I have to be an honest judge. Did I really take care of my relationships this year? Did I do everything I could to make the world a better place? It’s not just ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ It’s ‘Did I do anything positive? Did I actively make the world a better place?’ If not, what do I want to change? What could I do to stand here next Rosh Hashanah and say that I do deserve to be in the Book Of Life?”
“I view the High Holidays as a gift,” Rigler says. “We have the opportunity now, while we are alive — instead of waiting until we are dead — to atone for our sins, to correct mid-course, and begin a new chapter. That is a very, very Jewish gift. It is the opportunity for you — not a member of the clergy — to evaluate yourself, your relationship with God, your community and your loved ones. It is the opportunity to ask yourself — not be told by a member of the clergy — ‘What will I do differently in the coming year?’ and find your own answers. Write your own next chapter.”
Shemtov continues the metaphor. “I played a board game one year, and it was a game where you pulled cards from a box of questions,” Shemtov says. “I drew a card that said, ‘If you were a punctuation mark, what would you be?’ A question mark, exclamation point or period? A hyphen or a comma?
“I turned that into a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the Book of Life,” he says. “If you believe that God writes us in a book, I believe that we put in the punctuation. Punctuation changes how a sentence is structured and how the reading of it is perceived. So what kind of punctuation are you going to use to write your Book of Life?”
This article originally appeared in the fall 2012 edition of Inside Magazine.
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Inside.