Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lives in the Balance (Yom Kippur)

“On Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened in heaven: one for the completely righteous, one for the completely wicked, and one for those who are in between.  The completely righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the completely wicked in the Book of Death, while the fate of the intermediate is suspended until Yom Kippur.”                       (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b)

At first reading, the concept of the Book of Life, which pervades this sacred season, can be deeply problematic.  The notion of God as a micromanager, who keeps a detailed account of our every action, and rewards and punishes accordingly, is, to say the least, theologically questionable.

But I don’t think that’s the point of the metaphor.   After all, every one of us will die in one year or another, regardless of the righteousness of our deeds.  Nothing we do can save us from becoming an entry into the ledger of the Book of Death.  The only question is whether we choose to live well during the brief time allotted us. The Talmud’s teaching, above, is a reminder to do just that.

I suspect that there is no one in our community who has been either completely righteous or completely wicked this year.  Like 99.999 percent of humankind, we fall into that category of the beinoni, the intermediate, for whom the past year is a complicated mix of good and bad.   The message our tradition offers us is that during the Ten Days of Teshuvah, this time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we should reflect on our choices, make amends for our misdeeds, and resolve to do a little better in the coming months. 

Fittingly, the Zodiac sign for this first month of Tishrei is Libra, the scale.  It reminds of that we can tilt the delicate balance, in which we, metaphorically-speaking, hang this week, toward the good.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Libra is moznyayim, which contains, within it, the word for “ears” (oznayim).  From this, we might learn to take this time to listen to our better angels and thereby return to our proper course.  Take the time to look and listen within—and then to reach out to those around you.

May we all be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.

For another, more political, take on the notion of lives in the balance, here's a great tune by Jackson Browne

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