Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who Wrote The Book of Life?

This is a piece I wrote that was published in the Washington Jewish Week a couple of years ago. Although the High Holiday season has passed, I was reminded of the article and present it here:

The liturgy of the High Holidays abounds in sublime and majestic poetry. Among the richest and most memorable images presented to us on the High Holidays is that of the Book of Life that is opened before the Creator on Rosh Hashana, only to be sealed at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We are told that the fate of every individual, community and of the world at large is somehow indelibly inscribed in the pages of this fearsome Book each year. We wish one another “ketiva vehatima tova” – a good inscription and sealing – which is based upon this powerful depiction of G-d’s absolute and irrevocable judgment.

 It goes without saying that an omniscient Creator has no need for a book to keep track of records or lay down His judgment. The Book of Life is a metaphor adopted by our Sages to offer us a glimpse into the mechanics of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It cannot be taken as a literal depiction of the manner in which God evaluates our merits or determines our fate. How, then, does the image of a grand Book filled with inscriptions, signed and sealed On High, help us appreciate the cosmic significance of the High Holidays? How can we move beyond the simplistic picture of a heavenly bureaucracy and access the deeper meaning of this parable?
I believe that the key to understanding the “Book of Life” properly is recognizing who, in fact, is the author of the book. Contrary to popular belief, it is not God who records our deeds in the pages of some mysterious tome. Indeed, in the words of the Talmud, three books are “opened” before the Almighty on Rosh Hashana. One book lists those who are righteous, one book lists those who are wicked, and one book lists those who are in between. We must ask ourselves, if the judgment has not been passed yet, on what basis were we assigned to our respective books? Apparently, it is not God who is classifying us as righteous, wicked, or “in between” – He is merely examining books that are already written! So who is responsible for the actual content of these Books?
Sephardic Jews have an ancient and beloved custom of rising early in the morning to recite Selihot from the second day of the month of Elul through Yom Kippur – a total of approximately forty days. Sephardic Selihot are filled not only with prayers but with beautiful poetry that is chanted aloud in traditional melodies.  One of these pieces, authored by Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Balaam of the 12th Century, includes these lines:

“How can he complain or protest, what can he say to justify himself? He who is but a creature of clay whose body will one day revert to fine dust! What can man give to You, whether he be righteous or wicked? Behold, his words and deeds are written in the book of his days.”
In this passage, Ibn Balaam provides us with a totally new perspective on the “Book of Life” that is such a big part of our High Holiday lexicon.  Our words and actions are not of consequence to God because they affect Him. The Creator of the Universe has no need or inclination to transcribe or peruse our personal histories. The Book of Life is written by us – we are the authors of our own histories, and it is these very histories, set down, as it were, in our own cosmic autobiographies, that will form the foundation of our destiny whether we like it or not. Through exercising our freedom of choice we have already written ourselves into one of the three Books that will be presented -
opened" - before the Almighty, and it is up to us, if we so desire, to write ourselves into a different one before it is too late.

This approach gives a whole new meaning to the central theme of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – personal growth and repentance. The reason we are inspired to repent and improve ourselves during this time of year is not because we want God to be impressed with our efforts and reward us with great bounty. The reason why we are moved in the direction of positive change is because we recognize that we alone - with God’s endorsement, assistance and support - are the ones responsible for our own future. The decisions and commitments we make now, the words we inscribe in our Books of Life today, will determine the course of the year ahead.  As songstress Natasha Bedingfield put it,
“I'm just beginning, the pen's in my hand, ending unplanned
Staring at the blank page before you…
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten.”

True, we cannot hope to erase the chapters of our life stories that have already been composed and submitted to the Divine Editor for publication. Nor can we anticipate with any certainty precisely what the details of the next chapter’s plot will look like. However, as long as the current chapter of our Book of Life is still a work in progress, we have the power to conclude it in a way that will ensure that the tone set for future chapters is a positive and blessed one. And we do so with the confidence that God will seal and deliver those chapters as promised.

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