11th Elul: The Book of Life
The main theme of the days of awe is that of judgement, with one of the most powerful images being that used by R. Yochanan to prompt us into reflecting on how we are living our lives – that of the three books opened on this day, one for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly good, and one for everyone else. While the two extremes find themselves immediately “written in the book”, the rest of us have ten days to make a decision where our names will go.
I love this image, all the more so in a digital age when books are freighted with the symbolism of permanence that screens cannot provide. And to me the image is not frightening, not about a pre-ordained fate we will be unable to avoid, not in fact to do with God’s sentencing us, but everything to do with our being able to make a judgement and a record about how we are living our lives. To quote Bachya ibn Pakuda –“ days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.” The idea of our past experience not just vanishing into history but having a real impact on our present leads us to a number of different thoughts. Firstly, that memory matters. Memory is what roots us, gives us identity, shapes how we think and act. To have a book where Life is recorded and can be examined is to hold memory. Second, that even if we choose to forget something, it doesn't fully go. I can choose to forget what I did, to hope that my denial will win the day. But the record in my “book” doesn't forget. Which brings me to the third idea - that our actions do have consequences. What we have done matters, and where it requires resolution the “book” is available to remind us.
I like the book of life precisely because it is a book. It is a permanent record but it is constructed in such a way that while we might carry it around with us it does not impede our progress. In a book we can turn over a new leaf, and begin again on a fresh clean page. The past still exists, it is not erased, but it does not have to be brought to mind. We can be shaped by our past without having to be distorted by it. It is, if you like, a symbol of having finished some business when we write on the new page – having made the reconciliation or the resolution, the past can be consigned to the past, visited when necessary without intruding too much into the present.
As a child I used to be afraid of the Talmudic prompt – would I make it? Would everyone I loved be written in the right book? Would they not pay proper attention and be punished by God for it in the coming year? How could God write the name and allow a terrible death to await an unsuspecting person? And then I began to understand the powerful impetus to life that exists in Judaism – “choose life!” Says God, and I saw that we write our own books of life, they are quite literally aides memoires for us to read and see – am I choosing life? Am I behaving in an ethical and moral way? Am I trying to be a good person? Am I able to let go of negative aspects in myself and embrace more life enhancing ones? Am I learning?
The Book of Life isn’t there to scare us, it is there to remind us to get on with it. Every book has a final page and when the time comes we want it to be a book worth reading.
A choice each year to be inscribed into one of the two books isn’t a final choice, just as our book of life isn’t a new book each time. But some years we choose to hold on to our anger or grief or denial and stick there, not moving on, effectively dead, and other years we take the risk, let go, admit failure and acknowledge fault and move on. And when we let go of the burden, record it and then turn the page, we are firmly inscribed in the book of life.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild LBC 1987 London and Milan