An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
One of the most powerful and important motifs that we find in the High Holy Day prayer book is the idea of the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah and the first two thirds of Yom Kippur, over and over again we will invoke this idea in our prayers as we say,
“Zochreinu l’chayim, melech chafeitz bachayim. V’chotveinu b’sefer hachayim l’maancha, Elohim chayim.”
“Remember us for life, sovereign God who treasures life. Inscribes us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, God of Life.”
And then, in our Neilah or final Yom Kippur service next week, when we imagine that the gates are closing and that the opportunity to speak so intimately and directly with God is getting smaller and smaller, our prayer will change. Instead of asking God to inscribe us, in the Neilah service, we ask will God to seal us in the Book of Life as we say,
“Chotmeinu b’sefer hachayim lvrachah v’likdushah- ki atah kadosh, v’shimcha kadosh; usharecha bikdushah nikaneis.”
“Seal us for holiness and blessing in the Book of Life-- for You are holy and Your name is holy; and we yearn to enter Your gates in holiness.”
This idea of a Book of Life originally comes from the Babylonian Talmud which includes a teaching that Rabbi Kruspedai shared in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. In his lesson, Rabbi Kruspedai explains that in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Books of Life are opened and the destinies of those of us who are not entirely wicked or entirely righteous- ie all of humanity- have the ability to change the course of our life story by demonstrating or failing to demonstrate our commitment to repentance, prayer, and giving to our community.
For me, the metaphor of the Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, is not about a one to one equivalence of righteousness behavior and guarantees for future chapters. Instead, I find myself agreeing with Rabbi Maurice Davis who wrote, “I do not see a ledger in the skies wherein my fate is written, signed, and sealed. The Book of Life to me is a symbol. It says to me, ‘You are recorded! What you say is more than words whispered into the wind. What you are is something more than pebbles on a beach. What you do has an effect.”
The entreaty, “Cotveinu B’sefer Chayim, Inscribe us in the book of life,” appears again and again in the High Holy Day liturgy in order to call to mind both a sense of fragility because we understand that there are forces in this world that we cannot control as well as the knowledge that while we might not get to decide how many chapters are in our books, we are responsible for the words that fill our pages. In short, the Mahzor emphasises the metaphor of the Book of Life in order to force us to think about our own mortality within the safe space of the sanctuary.
This year, I want us to imagine that the High Holy Day are an opportunity for each of us to bring the working drafts of our Books of Life to the Highest Editor. These holiest of days present us with the chance to step back and ask, “How is my manuscript coming?” And, while there are an infinite number of ways to judge our progress, tonight I want to suggest three specific areas that deserve special attention.
We need to ask ourselves whether our story is an authentic representation of who we are. In order to see just how important this aspect of our narratives can be, let’s turn to the story of our matriarch Sarah. The only record of Sara’s existence that we have comes from Genesis, and the words inscribed in our Torah scroll were most certainly not written by her. But still, the record of her life that our tradition has preserved includes an important episode that shows us just how much we limit ourselves when we fail to live authentic lives.
In chapter 18 of Genesis, Abraham looks up from the opening of his tent and sees three figures approaching. Our sacred literature identifies these three visitors as angels who are fulfilling specific tasks while on earth. One of these responsibilities is the annunciation of Isaac’s future birth. Once the strangers are given food by their gracious hosts, “They said to [Abraham], ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And [Abraham] replied, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one [of the strangers] said, ‘I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!”
Now Sarah was standing behind the stranger and overheard his prediction for her future.
The biblical text pauses here to step back and to make sure that we understand exactly how miraculous this announcement was by stating clearly that Abraham and Sarah were, “advanced in years” and that Sarah had gone through menopause. From these details, we are supposed to know that having a child was entirely unexpected and even physically impossible for both of our ancestors. Having given us this information, the Torah then takes us back into the action, this time switching to Sarah’s private response to this unbelievable news.
In verse 12 we read, “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12)
The rabbis trip all over themselves to explain that Sarah’s question is only meant to judge her own body’s ability to have children and is not at all meant to imply anything about Abraham’s sexual prowess or abilities, but this rabbinic response is a topic best saved for another sermon. And so we go back to Genesis where we find in verse 13 a version of Sarah’s reaction which has been curiously altered.
“Then Adonai said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, [and] ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for Adonai? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
The episode concludes with Sarah’s response to God’s apparent anger over her incredulous reaction. The Torah tells us that upon hearing God’s question to Abraham, “Sarah lied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was frightened. But God replied, ‘You did laugh.”
Sarah’s reaction to the unbelievable news that she would finally, after decades of hoping and praying, have a child of her own is very authentic. However, she is immediately confronted with a powerful figure’s revision of her story, in this case, that powerful figure is God who quickly rewrites her response and then shares the revised version with Abraham. After learning that her response was in some way unacceptable, Sarah then begins to cover over her authenticity by offering the answers she thinks will be better received. But for Sarah and for those of us who have inherited her story, those inauthentic answers don’t sit well.
I want to you to think of the last time you gave someone the answer that you thought they wanted to hear instead of a truthful answer. I’m not talking about the last time you told your boss or your colleague that you’d be happy to take care of something work-related when in reality you wanted to be as far from your office as possible. Instead I’m asking you to think of the last time you told someone that you care about something that was false because you felt like your falsehood was the “correct” answer.
Or let’s try this: When was the last time that you found yourself posting something on social media that presented a version of your life that stretched so far past your actual experiences and feelings that it made you feel badly about your honest truth?
When was the last time that you told yourself that you weren’t truly feeling the way that you were feeling? When you admonished yourself that there was no reason for you to be sad or angry or scared even though those emotions were making your heart heavy? When was the last time someone offered you insightful comfort only for you to snap back at them with a complete denial?
Authentic lives are integrated lives. Living authentically means spending time examining your own emotional truths and then using that deep self- knowledge to live with emotional honesty. People living authentic lives know the boundaries and curvature of their pain and their joy, and they use that knowledge to understand others whose emotional topography might be completely different than their own. Living authentic lives means that the stories we add to our Sefer Chayim, our Book of Life, reflect deep wells of emotional truth. Living authentic lives allows us to build real and lasting relationships with other people and, perhaps most importantly, with ourselves.
I like to think that even though Sarah hadn’t been able to be authentically herself with either Abraham or God, she eventually found a quiet moment where she could explore all she was feeling. I like to think of her sitting in the shadow of a tent, hand on her heart, laughing as she allowed herself to feel all of the fear, grief, disbelief, disappointment, and hope that she had been carrying within her for so long. I like to think that she decided to name her son Isaac, which means laughter, because she wanted him to be a part of the authentic record of her experience. Because no matter what she said when God confronted her, she did laugh, and her laughter was beautiful because it was true.
As we examine the latest chapter we have added to our Books of Life, let’s ask ourselves if the words that fill our pages reflect the authentic truths of our lives. In 5779, let’s dig deep and stop pretending with ourselves. Let’s make our next chapters true reflections of our lives.
More than a decade ago, a lovely movie called The Holiday arrived in theaters. This movie chronicles the stories of two women who swap homes in an effort to escape from recent mistakes and maybe even find a little adventure for themselves along the way. While one of our main characters is on her holiday, she meets and assists an aging Hollywood screenwriter named Arthur Abbott who repays her kindness by taking her out for a nice dinner. While they are out on the town, Arthur listens to her tell him about her recent struggles, and then he offers what becomes the single most profound line in the movie. He leans over the table and says to her:
“Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.”
So in the spirit of Arthur Abbott, I ask you tonight, “In your Sefer Chayim, are you the lead character or the best friend?” This should, in theory, be a simple question to answer since your book is, after all, yours. But consider this before you decide: The chief difference between the protagonist and the best friend is agency.
Lead characters shape their stories. They are the driving forces behind behind the narrative. They may appear as best friends or sidekicks in other people’s stories, but within the pages of their own books, they are undeniably the central figure and the most powerful force. When they encounter inevitable difficulties and even traumas, they do not let their understandable despair stop them from engaging with these struggles. Protagonists can and do experience tragedy and they often find themselves thrust into unforeseen circumstances. When this happens, they might pull back so that they can process everything that they’re experiencing. But then, they use those moments of introspection to propel themselves into growth. Protagonists seem to know that they are among the ranks of the Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, and Lizzie Bennet. They know that life demands active participation.
In the world of fiction, best friends are there to support the protagonist. They cede their passions, power, and drives to the lead to whom they are attached. While their individual stories might be hinted at within the narrative, as characters, they are largely if not overwhelmingly passive. Things happen to them and around them rather than as the result of their own actions.
When Arthur Abbott says to Iris, “for some reason you are behaving like the best friend,” he is telling her that she is being passive in ways that suggest she’s living in someone else’s story. His blunt honesty is his attempt to get her to see just how much of her agency she has been giving away rather than embracing or even celebrating.
Over the next ten days, I challenge each of us to ask ourselves with brutal, blunt, Arthur Abbot-like honesty whether we are shaping our lives or are simply along for the ride. Are we charting a path through a chaotic world or are we riding in the wake of other people’s decisions?
All too often when I ask people why they are Jewish or a member of a synagogue, they respond with a kind of shrug and then explain that they’re here because of another person’s decision. Belonging to the Jewish people and a Jewish community because of someone else’s choices isn’t necessarily a bad reason, but it is a potentially unfulfilling one. Changing the language we use can help us reframe our lives in more active terms.
Consider the difference between the following answers to the question, “Why are you Jewish?”
Here’s the best friend/sidekick’s answer: “I’m Jewish because Judaism is important to my parents and they expected me to be Jewish too.”
Here’s the hero/heroine/protagonist’s answer: “I am Jewish because I have chosen to honor my parents’ commitment to Judaism, and so I have prioritized the religion in my own life.”
Both of these answers offer essentially the same reason for being Jewish, but the protagonist’s answer embraces the power of choice. Their life is a reflection of their decisions.
In these Days of Awe, I challenge us to look carefully at the language that we’re using to frame our stories. Each of us needs to ensure that we are the protagonists of our own lives.
I challenge all of us to grapple with the fact that if you are engaging with Judaism or with anything else, it is because you have chosen to do so. We have to reject the temptation to frame our decisions passively. Instead, we need to embrace the opportunity to be the heroines, heroes, and lead characters of our own stories.
We need to remember that our Books of Life are not novels shaped by some unseen narrator. They are autobiographies. Do not cede your authorship to anyone. Be actively engaged in writing the story of your life.
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, the High Holy Day prayer book’s repeated emphasis on the Book of Life is meant to force us to consider our own mortality, an inherently uncomfortable topic, within the confines of a literal sanctuary or safe space. And so, I also want to challenge all of us to use these next ten days, the holiest days of our year, to consider the following question: If your Sefer Chayim, your Book of Life, is your legacy, will you satisfied with what you are leaving behind?
When we pass away, we take all of our thinking, our dreams, and our beliefs with us. The only thing that we can leave behind is a record of what we have done. That record will be the only tool that future generations will have to understand who we were. That record will be our Sefer Chayim.
We need to realize that we will leave nothing behind unless our good intentions lead to action, unless our talk leads to change, unless our hopes lead to work.
We need to make this year the year that we make our marks. Let’s be intentional about what we are adding to our Books of Life every single day. Let’s make sure that whenever we reach the last page of our books, we can close the cover knowing that we have left behind a story that is an authentic representation of a journey that we truly embraced. Let’s strive to create a library of stories that will tell future generations that our community understood that every day brought with it the opportunity to improve ourselves and our world.
Rabbi Laura Geller wrote that, “Your Book of Life doesn’t begin today, on Rosh HaShanah. It began when you were born. Some of the chapters were written by other people: your parents, siblings, and teachers. Parts of your book were crafted out of experiences you had because of other people’s decisions: where you lived, what schools you went to, what your homes were like. But the message of Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day—by the choices you make. The book is not written and sealed; you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to emphasize and remember, and maybe even which parts you want to leave behind. Shanah tovah means both a good year, and a good change. Today you can change the rest of your life. It is never too late.”
On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, I pray that we will embrace the opportunity for reflection and even critique that the High Holy Days offer us. I pray that we will use this appointment with the Editor on High to make our stories truer, deeper, and more lasting.
L’shanah tova tikateivu- v’teichateimu!
May you be inscribed- and sealed- for a good year!