Rosh Hashanah Day II - Rabbi Natan Freller

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 10:24am -- Anonymous (not verified)

Rabbi Shalom Lewis

Congregation Etz Chaim – High Holidays 2018/5779

Natan Freller

We are co-authors of the “Book of Life”.

Earlier this year, soon before passing away, the famous writer Philip Roth was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR.

Gross asked: “When you're writing a book, do you have everything mapped out before you start?”

Roth responded: “No. I don't know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write, you know? You don't know anything. You don't even know how to write. So, you begin every book as an amateur and as a dummy. And in the writing, you discover the book. Of course, you're in charge. (…) So, each sentence is a revelation. I'm not exaggerating. Each and every sentence is a revelation. I don't have any idea what it will look like when it's done.”

From a young age, we are told stories about the famous ‘Book of Life’. During this season of the year, we say a traditional blessing to each other: ‘may you be inscribed in the Book of Life’. We learn and teach our children about the Book of the good things and a Book which contains all of the bad things we have done in the past year. Here, the actions of the previous year are written down recorded for God to be used in our judgment about our future, when writing the next year’s book.

But what kind of book is this? Who is writing in the ‘Book of Life’?

This image comes from many different places. I want to share a little bit of the history behind the main source present in our liturgy today.

Filled with many feelings and emotions, after overcoming a challenging situation in his life, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz wrote a piut, a liturgical piece in form of a poem. Rabbi Amnon, who lived almost a thousand years ago, tried to illustrate what is happening in the heavens during this time of the year. This beautiful text is called “Unetane Tokef” and it is an essential part of our liturgy of Rosh Hashana. Let us take a look.

This prayer begins by proclaiming the divine power that rules over us, putting the responsibility to judge each one of us on God, according to God’s compassion and truth. Furthermore, the text states that God remembers even what was already forgotten, since God witnesses each and every one of our actions.

And suddenly, after putting all the responsibility on God, an interesting phrase in this liturgical poem comes up:

“God opens the Book of Remembrance, and the record speaks for itself, every person’s signature is there”

Wait! Isn’t God the one who writes in that book? How can I sign? Anyone here remember signing the book?

Apparently, we are co-authors of the “Book of Life”.

Pretending that nothing shocking was just said, the text circles back to the same theme that we have seen in the beginning, where even the angels will be judged by God. On this day, every creature passes before God as a flock before its shepherd. We are judged individually, and God’s decrees are then recorded in the Book of Life.

On Rosh Hashanah we will be inscribed and in the fast day of Iom Kipur we will be sealed. The poem describes a realistic enumeration of the misfortunes which might befall on us during the coming year. Even the most skeptical among us will tremble a bit after hearing all of these future possibilities.

Uteshuvah, utefilah, utzdakah maavirin et roa hagzerah – And Repentance, Prayer and Social Justice can change the evil of the decree.

This phrase helps clarifying what he meant by “each person’s signature is there” in the previous paragraph. The poet Rabbi gives us here an opportunity. An opportunity for reflection and action, a challenge to step up and be part of the divine decision-making process.

We are co-authors of the “Book of Life”.

Ok, I think I got it. But how can I really change God’s decree? What does it truly mean to sign the “Book of Life”? What should I do tomorrow morning? What should I do right now?

There are ways of writing our names in the divine “Book of Life” and today I would like to share a few ideas about being part of this covenant with Adonai.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in the 18th century wrote about the Unetane Tokef:

“’Inscribe us in the Book of Life’. This must be understood in a spiritual sense. When a person clings to the Divine love, and puts their trust in the Divine infinite mercy, they take upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore inscribe themselves in the Book of Life. Whereas the person, a slave to their passions, who loses their belief in the all-embracing Divine love, fail to repent and return to God in heaven, their despair for the love of God is the equivalent to being inscribed – God forbid – in the Book of Death.”

In my understanding, the Baal Shem Tov is trying to teach more than just accepting a heavenly power over us, but more than that, he is showing us exactly the first step of this process. Being humble and accepting the divine way of the world is similar to opening the book with God, creating the possibility of a partnership which will allow us to be co-authors of the book.

In the same way, the order that Teshuva (repentance), Tefilah (prayer) and Tzedaka (Social Justice) appear in Unetane Tokef can also teach us something.

Once the partnership between Adonai and us, human and Divine, is established in a meaningful and humble way, Teshuva (repentance) is the next step. A deep process of reflection is necessary in order to fix our own mistakes and to correct our imperfect behavior. Recognizing our flaws is a key to open this process.

The Hebrew verb lehitpalel, usually translated as to pray, or to daven, is a reflective verb. It means that whatever action that it might be, the object of the sentence is also the subject. The root palel in Hebrew means to judge. When we Jews daven, we are actually transforming ourselves, judging our own actions, making a commitment to the divine values described in our liturgy.

Through Tefilah (prayer) we can translate our deep Teshuva (repentance) into words and make it official for ourselves and before God. Tefilah has the potential to elevate our spirit to a state where we can see the world from a different perspective.

What we give voice to becomes more substantive, more real. Prayer, like all human speech, is a creative act. The prayers that we say shape our inner lives.

Our new consciousness causes us to relate differently to the world around us, and it thus prompt us to shape a different external reality.

After working on our introspective self as well as sharing it with our close community and God, finally we move to the outside world and translate our repentance and our prayer into Tzedakah (Social Justice). As my middle school Math teacher, Mrs. Namour would say: “I only accept apologies when they come together with a behavior change. Are you going to change?”. The final step of the process is to transform our repentance into behavior, the thought that is ideal into action that is real.

We cannot deviate from the essence of our religion. Compassion over a harsh judgment; ethical behavior over immorality; social justice over closing our eyes to the problems of our world.

The elements that are capable of changing the evil of the decree, Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka, need our efforts and creativity to exist. Without our actions and full commitment, we cannot change our sentences.

We are co-authors of the “Book of Life”.

Just as Philip Roth said: “Of course, you're in charge. (…) So, each sentence is a revelation. I'm not exaggerating. Each and every sentence is a revelation.”; Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Jewish medieval philosopher, said: Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered.

Our writing is not done only with words, but with actions. Every decision we make, is our signature on the book.

We are co-authors of the “Book of Life”.

May this year be a blessing for all of us.

May we write and be inscribed in the Book of Life. Leshana Tova Tikatevu!

Shana Tova Umetuka!

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