To finish off my series on Rosh Hashana, I wanted to put front and center the seemingly ominous threat made to every Jew to bolster attendance at High Holiday services. Supposedly, this is the time when God inscribes us in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year. Doesn’t get much more foreboding than that.
But it wasn’t until I was reading a Rosh Hashana Machzor (prayer book) that I came across an interesting interpretation of this Book of Life idea. I’m not going to tell you the interpretation just yet. Instead I’m going to draw a parallel from this week’s parsha (Torah portion).
This week all the synagogues over the world will read parshas Nitzavim. Moses is about to die. He calls all the children of Israel together and gives them one final speech before his passing and their crossing into the Promise Land. It culminates with the following…
I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live… Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:19
What is this choose life? Aside from people crippled by depression and suffering from suicidal thoughts, who is struggling to choose life?Well… everyone.
Freud talked about the internal struggle between eros, the life instinct and thanatos, the death instinct. The latter was his explanation for why people engaged in risky and self-destructive acts. But what the Torah is talking about is something more pervasive and much more immediate.
I had a Rabbi boil down the essence of free will not as a choice between doing good vs doing evil or even choosing chocolate vs vanilla. He said it came down to the choice above. At any given moment we have the choice to engage in life or choose momentary death. The choice to get out of bed and start the day vs hitting the snooze button. Watching another episode in the Netflix binge session or being productive. And if you think about it, the nature of drinking is to detach from reality. There’s even a term – getting dead drunk. These are small moments of embracing death. Should those desires be allowed to fester unchecked, ultimately they will lead to literal death. But for most of us we have an automatic course correcting response. Usually it kicks in when we wake up in the morning.
What Moses is talking about in the most grounded of terms is being an active participant in life. Not being a zombie. Not running away. Not being a slave to decisions made by our younger selves. If we choose to engage and do what we deep down know we want, rather than giving into the immediate desire of what we feel like doing, that will lead to blessings.
So… we were talking about a Book?
Yes, back to Rosh Hashana. So God is writing names down in this Book of Life. The interpretation I came across talked about life in the very terms I’ve illustrated above. That someone might live through the next year, but are they really living? Did they grow as a person? Did they seize opportunities? Did they have any kind of awakening? In short, did their year have meaning? If they did then they would have been inscribed in the Book of Life. Even by that definition, such a person may not make it to the next Rosh Hashana. But the fact that they made their time matter is what’s important.
So with that, I wish all of you a new year filled with happiness and health, insight and profundity, and most importantly, inscription into the Book of Life. Shana Tova.