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.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wisdom in Consolation

In Chapter 14 of Avot DeRabbi Natan, we read a fascinating story about consoling mourners in their time of bereavement. Specifically, we are told how Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the wake of the destruction of the Holy Temple, lost his son and how his students attempted to comfort him:

When the son of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai died, his disciples came to comfort him. Rabbi Eliezer entered and sat down before him. He said to him, "My master, do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" [Rabban Yohanan] responded, "speak." [Rabbi Eliezer] said, "Adam the first had a son who died, and he was able to be consoled. How do we know that he was able to be consoled? Because it is written, 'And Adam again knew his wife, etc.' You too should be consoled!"

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Adam the first?"

Rabbi Yehoshua entered and said, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" Rabban Yohanan said, "Speak." Rabbi Yehoshua said, "Iyov (Job) had sons and daughters and they all died on one day, yet he was consoled for them - so too should you be consoled! And how do we know that Iyov was consoled? As it is written, "Hashem has given and Hashem has taken away; may the name of Hashem be blessed."

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Iyov?"

Rabbi Yose entered and sat before him. He said to him, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" [Rabban Yohanan] said to him, "Speak." He said, "Aharon had two great sons and both of them died on the same day, yet he was consoled for them, as it says 'and Aharon was silent', and silence can only mean consolation. You too should be consoled!"

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Aharon?"

Rabbi Shimon entered and said, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" Rabban Yohanan said, "Speak." Rabbi Shimon said, "King David had a son who died and yet he was consoled. You too should be consoled! And how do we know that King David was consoled? As it is written, 'And David consoled Bat-Sheva, his wife, and came to her and lay with her, and she gave birth to a son and he called him Shelomo.' You too, my master, be consoled!"

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of David?"

Then Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya entered. When he [Rabban Yohanan] saw him, he said to his servant: "Take a vessel before me to the bathhouse, for he is a great man and I cannot stand before him." He [Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya] entered and sat before him and said: "I will offer you a parable - to what can this matter be compared? To a man to whom the King entrusted a deposit. Each and every day the man cries and shouts and says, 'Woe is to me, when will I part from this deposit in peace?' So it is with you, my master. You had a son. He read Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, Halakha and Aggada, and he left the world without sin. You should be consoled that you returned the deposit intact."

He said to him: "Rabbi Elazar, my son, you have consoled me in the manner that human beings console."

There are many noteworthy details in this account that deserve an explanation; however, for now, I'd like to focus on two basic questions that trouble the reader about this narrative:

1) The first four rabbis who offer words of comfort seem to approach the issue with similar methodologies. Each highlights the suffering of a famous Biblical personality and encourages Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai to be consoled just as that historical character was consoled. What led them to adopt this approach to begin with, and, once it was rejected by Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai the first time, why did each subsequent student insist on trying variations of the same rejected theme?

2) What was the essential difference in the way that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya addressed Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai's suffering, and what can we learn from it?

I believe that the premise of the students was a simple one: The experience of suffering is emotional and essentially irrational, and the key to coping with suffering is rising above it, escaping from the grip of the pain and taking refuge in philosophical ideas that neutralize it. Let us see how each student attempted to facilitate this transition in Rabban Yohanan:

Rabbi Eliezer cited the example of Adam. In doing so, he suggested that from the dawn of human civilization parents have lost children, and yet they maintained their resolve to perpetuate the human race regardless. If we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by tragedy, human civilization as we know it would come to an end. In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was encouraging Rabban Yohanan to stop focusing on his personal tragedy and focus on the humanity and the imperative to perpetuate our species, the proverbial "big picture" of what is "truly important". Rabban Yohanan was not consoled.

Then Rabbi Yehoshua cited the example of Iyov. Iyov recognized and accepted that tragedy and loss is an inescapable part of human life. To live and to love is to expose oneself to the pain of death and mourning. "Hashem has given and Hashem has given away, blessed is the name of Hashem." If we are to partake of Hashem's blessings, we must also be prepared to endure His withdrawal of blessing. We can't have one without the other, and so we shouldn't be overwhelmed when tragedy strikes. This philosophical idea did not console Rabban Yohanan either.

Next, Rabbi Yose mentioned the case of Aharon, who lost two sons on the day that the Tabernacle was finally dedicated. Despite the horror of this tragedy, the service of God went on, Aharon and his remaining sons set aside their inner pain and continued their faithful implementation of the Divine Will. Rabbi Yose's point was that Rabban Yohanan, as well, should not allow his feelings of despondence to overwhelm him and interfere with his study of Torah and observance of Mitzvot. He should remember that the continuity of the Masorah, our sacred tradition, is a paramount value for the sake of which all other concerns must be sacrificed. The service of God is greater than anything in our personal lives and must be perpetuated! This, too, did not console Rabban Yohanan.

The fourth student to enter is Rabbi Shimon, who cites the case of King David.  Although King David lost a son (actually, a few sons!) this did not undermine his commitment to the Jewish people as their political leader and the forger of their destiny. He ensured that a stable monarchy would be established regardless of any personal suffering he experienced along the way. So too, argued Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yohanan needed to look beyond the loss of his son and consider his obligations to the community as their leader and the source of their stability, as the man who was laying the groundwork for their future as a nation. This idea also failed to satisfy Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.

Finally, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya enters and offers his brilliant allegory, which succeeds in comforting the ailing Rabban Yohanan. What was so different about his approach? Rather than try to move Rabban Yohanan's mind AWAY from his inner turmoil and sense of loss, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya infused the loss with great meaning. Instead of distracting Rabban Yohanan from his experience of suffering or downplaying its significance relative to the "ultimate truth", the allegory deepened his perspective on the experience, affirming that it was, indeed, significant.

There is a profound lesson for all of us in this narrative. When offering comfort or consolation to someone, philosophizing is not the way to go. No one wants to be "talked out" of suffering, distracted or told to move on because there are greater or more important things to live for or to focus on. The key to helping someone cope with loss is not to downplay it but to enable them to find meaning within the tragedy, to help them develop a perspective on their experience that is deeper, healthier, and more adaptive.

In fact, the word for consolation - נחם - in Hebrew comes from the same root as "to change one's mind", because its essence is not getting one's mind off of tragedy but transforming the way one keeps one's mind ON the tragedy.