Remember us for life,
our sovereign, who wishes us to live,
and write us in the Book of Life,
for your sake, ever-living God.
Rosh ha-Shanah morning amidah
This short passage from the Amidah might sound familiar to us because we repeat it every year from Rosh ha-Shanah and during all the High Holidays, these days when the community gathers. According to this text, it is God who writes down each persons’ name in The Book of Life. But Midrash Tanhuma presents us with a slightly different picture, referring to Adam, the first human being who was expelled from the Garden of Eden for having disobeyed God. His punishment is doubled because on the one hand, he will have to work hard to eat, and on the other, he is bringing death to humans.
However, Adam confronts God, saying: «Your Torah will say that I brought death into the world. I want to be considered responsible for the death of the sinners, but I do not want to be held responsible for the death of the just!» God answers him «Do not worry, Adam. I will ask each one to write down a story of their lives and to weigh it.» Therefore, according to this passage of the Midrash, it is not God but each of us who writes The Book of our Lives. This idea emphasizes our responsibility for our own actions.
Our lives do not depend on external, providential and deterministic interventions. We can shape our lives according to our own image. But, in the end, what is our image? Yes, we know very well that humans were created in God’s image, b’tselem elohim (Gn 1:27), but what is that image? What is that face? Do we know ourselves? Is it our true image or the image we think we present to others? If we are to write our names down in the Sefer ha-Hayim, in the Book of Life, how do we manage to have our names recorded in it? Is it a regular book? Do we really know ourselves enough to write a book that will be truly ours?
Tradition tells us to begin the year doing teshuvah, a return to our true selves. But needless to say, in order to come back to our true selves, first we need to know where we stand, where we are. Jackie Mason expressed this idea very well as he remembered his first visit to the therapist, who told him, «This is not the real you. We have to search for the real you.» Jackie Mason answered «If this is not the real me, where is it? And when we find it will I be able to recognize it? What will happen if I discover the real ME and I do not like it? And if I am not the real Me, why should I pay you? The real Me will pay you!»
This story exemplifies for us the fear that we feel facing the possibility of discovering the «real me» whom we ignore and the immediate excuse saying, «It is not my fault! I am not responsible, someone else is.» But the voice of Tradition forbids us to escape. It demands that we face reality, to stop dreaming for a moment and be honest with ourselves, one of the most difficult things to do because it does not give room for indulgence.
Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
«Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!»
«The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.»
The followers were puzzled. «Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?»
Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. «I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’»
His followers persisted. «So, what will they ask you?»
«And I have learned,« Zusia sighed, «that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’»
One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, «But what will they ask you?»
«They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?’»
Have you done during your life all those things that you were able to do? Have you used your skills and gifts to help others and to improve the world around you? Or only to profit from it? Have you been yourself? Or have you held yourself back?
Frequently we like to give an image of ourselves as a reaction to or in opposition to other people. We like to label, and sometimes, instead of reflecting, asking ourselves what we really think, we act in a very superficial way. Today we are like Zusia. Our Mahzor reads:
«And all who come into the world pass before you like sheep for the shepherd for just as a shepherd numbers the flock passing the herd by the staff, so do you make us pass by before you and number and count and determine the life…»
Unetaneh tokef, Mahzor page 349
Like Zusia, we stand before God and before ourselves in judgment. We will not be compared to another person, only to ourselves and to the potential that it is in us but that we have not put into action yet.
The Torah gives us the example of Judah, the son of Jacob, brother of Joseph. Judah is like any of us, a fallible, imperfect human. He has played an active role in selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery, and he has mistreated his daughter in law, Tamar. Then Judah has to address the prince of Egypt about protecting his younger brother, Benjamin, whose life is in the hands of Judah. The text says: «Then Judah went up to him.» The peshat, the literal meaning of the text, is that he approached the prince, but the drash, the metaphoric level of reading, is that he approached himself because it is when he is close to himself, open and honest to himself, that he will be able to give the best of himself.
It is not wise to let impulses lead your life. The Shema reminds us of this point twice a day: «so you won’t go after the lust of your hearts or after what catches your eye.» (Nm 15:38) We should not follow the strong and violent voice of our desires, no, but that still small voice kol d’mama dakah (1 Kings 19:12) that dictates the ethical behavior which gives us peace of mind and spirit, reassuring us that we have done good.
Judah had sinned, as we have sinned during this past year, but it was given to him as it is given to us now the possibility to reconstruct ourselves, to build ourselves anew. The true teshuvah, the true repentance, begins then with coming back to the true self, acknowledging who we truly are, with no excuses, no masks, our real face, the only face with which we can turn to God.
The halachah, the Jewish law, teaches us that, during our lives, each of us should write a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. This mitzvah, or precept, can be understood literally, but it can also be interpreted metaphorically. Thus it is really us who will write the Book of our Life, even if it is God who inspires us, even if it is God who provides the ink, the pen and the parchment. It is us who decide the plot, the time when we want to start a new chapter.
Rosh ha-Shanah may seem insignificant. It is up to us to make it a time of reflection, a silence in this book that will allow us to think about, analyze, and discern which path we want to walk on. It will not be just turning the page, but a renewal, full of promises. With every New Year it seems that there is an omen for shalom, peace. But for peace, shalom, to be complete, shalem, it is necessary for it to be both internal and external.
Thus the book, that book that are to begin to write, will not be any type of book whose success depends on the plot or its literary quality, nor will it echo the latest trendy ideas. This book will be successful because it will take our true feelings into it, without hypocrisy, because ethics will find a pivotal role and will make its authors into better persons.