Thursday, August 11, 2011

Preparing for the Days of Awe (part 1)

Who Wrote the Book of Life?

There are quite a few significant prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems) created in their entirety for the Days of Awe. Future columns in this series will focus on several of these: Avinu Malkeinu, Unetaneh Tokef ("who shall live and who shall die”), the Yom Kippur confession of sin, Rosh Hashanah shofar service, and Kol Nidre.

Yet most of the High Holy Day liturgy is comprised of the same prayers that we recite regularly, on Shabbat and weekdays. What, then, makes these familiar liturgical pieces unique for the season? Two things: a) special musical settings; b) short insertions and substitutions emphasizing God's sovereignty, a theme of these Days of Awe. Dan Stern will offer a guest column here about the former; I would like to share a few thoughts on the latter.

The best known of these High Holy Day additions is inserted into Avot and Imahot, the opening of the Amidah, which recognizes God as the sustainer and support of our patriarchs and matriarchs. During this season, we interrupt our flowing words of praise with a plea: "Zochreinu l'chayyim, melech chafetz ba-chayyim, v'chotveinu b'sefer ha-chayyim l'ma-anchah Elohim chayyim--Remember us for life, O Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in your Book of Life, for Your sake, O God of life." [for a great musical setting of Zochreinu, look here:
What are the origins of this passage, and what might it teach us?

The theme is derived from a statement in the Talmud suggesting that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God judges each of us, writing the righteous into the Book of Life, and the wicked into a corresponding Book of Death. Our version of the teaching here emphasizes God's--and our--strong yearning and predilection for life: we pray to a "God of life" who "delights in life" and in so doing, offer our own affirmation of life's essential blessing.

Still, the image is challenging, even as a metaphor (surely there are no real, literal books here). Experience teaches that there is little--or no--connection between our morality and our mortality. In the coming year, many good people will die and bad people will not only live but prosper. What, then, does this image of the books offer us?

I find that this metaphor calls us to a spiritual accounting, to acknowledge and take responsibility for our choices. As Gates of Repentance puts it: "Every word, every act inscribes itself in the book of life. Freely we choose, and what we have chosen to become stands in judgment over what we may yet hope to be." Or, in the words of the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Bachya ibn Pakuda, "Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered."

As we approach our most sacred season, may we use our days to bring healing, increase blessing, seek forgiveness, work for justice, and deepen our Jewish connections within ourselves and with our community.

Questions to consider:

1. What have you done this year to write yourself into the Book of Life? What deeds and choices are you most proud of?

2. What choices did you make that were not life-affirming, for you and/or for others? How can you change course in these matters over the coming weeks?

3. How, during the frenetic pace of our daily lives, can we step back and reflect on the notion that our days are scrolls and what we write in them--at every moment and with every act--is of utmost significance?

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