Writing in the Book of Life

The High Holidays, Rosh haShanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) will fall on Sept. 23 and 24, and Oct. 2. These holy days of the Jewish calendar represent change and renewal. One of the primary images of the holiday is the book of life, in which we hope to be written at the new year.

As Rosh haShanah, the new year, approaches, I look forward to some favorite moments: the dinner where I bring apples and honey to my loved ones to bless them with a sweet year, the evening service where I join my community in singing the shehecheyanu prayer to show our gratitude that we as a community have made it another year, the morning service where I prostate myself on the ground in deference to the creative force of the universe, the shofar sounding, the story of Sarah laughing at the birth of Isaac, the casting of bread into the Hudson River as a sign that I rid myself of old sins. These moments of celebration and reflection weave together into a tapestry of solemn joy. Rosh haShanah is an autumn equinox holiday, celebrating the balance of darkness and light, of past and future. If Rosh haShanah were a book, it would be a grand silver-covered prayerbook, illuminated with bright and dark colors to remind us of the colors of our lives.

Yom Kippur is different for me. I don't look forward to it so much as let it happen. The prayers of Kol Nidre, the story of the high priest entering the Holy of Holies, the tales of martyrs strike me year after year like waves, shaping me in accordance with the sacred forces of the universe, or battering me with truths that are hard to hear. If it has been a hard year, that hardness seeps into the words of the liturgy, making them bitter or salty or sadly sweet. If it has been a good year, wistfulness rises in the notes of the songs. At Neilah, the final prayer of the holiday, I feel almost as if I am journeying to heaven, and I know it is a perilous journey. On Yom Kippur, I bathe in the river of compassion, and let the tears come. This too is an autumn equinox holiday, but one that goes down into darkness. Yom Kippur is not about balance so much as it is about depth. Afterward, I am utterly exhausted. If Kol Nidre were a book it would be bound in a tattered cover, with blinding white pages empty except for the handprints of all who have opened it before.

It is said that on Rosh haShanah we seek to be written in the book of life. On Yom Kippur, the book of life is sealed. Some say there are three books, one of the good, one of the wicked, and one of the in-between, and the secret is for the in-between to learn how to climb into the pages of the good. Others say there is only one book, the book of all creation, of all generations of ferns and fossils and frogs and human beings, and the secret is to know we are written there. When we know we are written in that book, we know how we must act in the world, in humility and love. We know that while we cannot control all that happens to us, our lives and their meaning will not be lost.

On the evening of Rosh haShanah, the Old One who inhabits time, however we imagine Him or Her, holds out the Book to us so we can open it. At the moment we light the candles, bless the wine, hear the shofar, toss the bread, enter a community to pray or sit in meditation to remember, the Old One opens the book before us and we search for our names. During the days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, we try to rewrite our names as honestly as we can, to note down who we truly are. On Yom Kippur, as we consider our deeds, mourn for what we have lost, and ask for compassion, the Old One opens the book for us again. This time, perhaps, we see not our names but the roots of our names: the light and darkness behind our daily lives. Then we know no one can erase us from the Book. The Book of Life, which is the web of life, is our birthright and our destiny; we only need to know we are written in its pages.

If Rosh haShanah is a book of light, Yom Kippur is a book of shadows. Together they are the balance of day and night at this autumn season. As we open both of them, may we come to a whole and true vision of ourselves, and find new and better ways to face the future.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director and co-founder of Tel Shemesh, and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, as well as The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.

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