The liturgical and ritual richness of the High Holiday season has produced a number of vibrant symbols which seem to maintain their ability to reverberate in consciousness repeatedly through the ages. After all, the theme of the period is the interplay of creation and judgment, reflection and repentance, concepts at the core of human existence; after all, it is traditional to look at Rosh Hashana as the day which determines life or death, as it were, for the coming year. So one would imagine that the prayerbook would, over the generations, become a listing of things people want for the coming year, a catalogue of needs to pray for. However, reading through the prayerbook one would quickly see that there’s very little petitionary prayer regarding mundane needs; the mystics in particular insist that the life we pray for on is not primarily the physical but the spiritual (cf Tikkunei Zohar 6). Interestingly, the attempt to repress what is clearly on most people’s mind led to even more creative re-symbolization such as the punning use of blessings over various fruits and vegetables to symbolize potential blessings for the upcoming year, of which the apple dipped in honey has taken on independent life as a signifier. The Sefat Emet adds another level of signification to these, so that the way that we extract these semantic hints from the names of the fruit instruct us how to see the possibilities of spirituality in every physical object. Perhaps it is the sense we have of these layers upon layers of meaning during the experience of the High Holidays that makes them a particularly moving time.
One image that is strongly associated with these holidays that has become particularly evocative and metonymic for the entire season is that which grew out of this Talmudic teaching:
R. Cruspedai taught in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana, one of the totally wicked, one of the totally righteous, and one for those in-between. The righteous are immediately inscribed and signed off in the book of life, the wicked are immediately inscribed and signed off in the book of death, and those in-between have their fate suspended until Yom Kippur- if they are worthy, they are inscribed in the book of life, and if not, in the book of death (BT Rosh Hashana 16: ).
The imagery imagined in this text, of the book of life, has evolved into a central motif of the holiday, with the phrase “sefer hachayim”, book of life, appearing multiple times in the liturgy, as well as becoming part of the standard greeting for the holiday, and in countless greeting cards and supermarket advertisements. A dear friend tells me that as a child, if she would get restless during Rosh Hashana services, her mother would shoosh her saying “don’t you realize that the Book of Life is open?” What is it about this symbol of a book of life that resonates so deeply?
This image itself, of a book of life in which individual fates are inscribed, can be broken down into several component parts, such as the book itself, the act of writing, the content inscribed. The Kedushat Levi is stuck by the need for a “book”. In fact, he says, the book is secondary, as evidenced by the way this concept was incorporated into the liturgy. We say, multiple times during this period, “zachrenu l’chayim melech chafetz b’chayim, remember us for life, king who celebrates life, v’katvenu b’sefer hachayim, l’maancha elokim chayim, and inscribe us in the book of life for your sake, the living Elokim”. He sees the two phrases as reflecting two realities. In the true state of things, where our relationship with Gd would be direct and unimpeded, we would be like friends sharing things freely, and our shared gifts would be remembered without need for accounting. However, since we live in an unperfected world of sin and error, our actions need to be recorded, as in a court of law or an accounting audit, so that if there are prosecuting doubts, the written record can be provided. Thus, when we invoke Gd as direct king (melech), memory (zechira) is adequate, but if we are in the more distant relational state represented by the divine name Elokim, which is the divine name traditionally understood as representing Gd in the relationship with humanity of “judgment”, then we need the recourse to the printed record, the “book of life”. When the good is recorded as in a book, signed and sealed, that will cause those things that hinder our spiritual development to “back off” (his words, yasigu achor).
In turning to the “content” of this “book”, there is the obvious question, if indeed this teaching is to be read literally, then one must conclude that this is a book without significant impact. Our experience teaches us that it is certainly not the case that the evil perish and the righteous live on. So what then is the book of “life” about? Or let us ask, what actions or “events” make up the content of this book?
The concept of “events” has become a hot topic of contemporary philosophical discourse, prompted by Alain Badiou’s book L’etre et l’evenment. In his presentation, our normal existence is constituted of the infinite items of our experience, undifferentiated and given, some things in our life are presented but not represented (things that don’t always fit into our given framework of lifestyle, society, etc). However, according to Badiou, there are transformative Events, which often appear to be ex-nihilo, since they appear to come out of the “void”, the component of the normal situation which is often suppressed or repressed (so in his case of the French Revolution, it would be the rabble that was not accounted for in the usual presentation of what French society at the time was). However, when the Event occurs, it becomes recognized as such by giving itself a name (ie the French Revolution) suddenly it gives retrospective meaning to the “void” (that excess of non-comprehended aspects of the pre-event life, ie, the exploited rabble), and most importantly, it actually “creates” the subject who participated in the Event (who are now Revolutionaries). For our purposes, there is a circle established between the Event, the recognition that an Event has transpired by those who “wager” that something transformative has happened, and the subject who is now in a sense transformed by the action that the subject participated in (or chose to recognize as such). Thus, not everything that happens in the normal flow of existence is an Event, the being of an Event is determined by those involved and is, at the same time, constitutive and transformative of those involved.
In this light, we can return to the “book of life”. The Tiferet Shlomo explains, if I may borrow the above language, that the good we do in our lives makes up the Events of our lives. It is the actions we do, with the proper motivation, to improve the world, not for our reward, that make up the text of the book of life. These actions are registered in the “book of life” because actions of this sort are like living breathing organisms, full of “chiyut”, vital life force, that outlive our mere physical existence. And in fact, adds the Tiferet Shlomo, at this time of year, we examine our lives, our actions, and can “edit” our past actions and thus elevate them as well, his phrase is “give them wings to soar upward”. In this way, he reads the line from the liturgy cited earlier in connection with the Kedushat Levi as reading “write our actions in the book, the living ones (reading “write them in the book of life” as “write them in the book, the living/vital ones), the ones done for your sake Elokim…”
The Sefat Emet, following in this path states flatly that the life we are asking for on Rosh Hashana is that same spiritual vitality, the life of the soul. The 3 books mentioned in the Talmud correspond to the balance between material and spiritual in each individual. The book of “life”, of spiritual alive-ness, represents those who have transcended the physical, as in the Talmudic dictum that the righteous even in death are considered “alive”, certainly one can understand how spiritual achievements take on an infinite life of their own beyond the mere physical existence of the body. On the other hand, those who have surrendered entirely to their physical being, are in the book of death, because of the ineluctable progress of the body towards aging sickness and death. Those who are in the middle ground, have the opportunity with the newness of the new year, Rosh Hashana, to evaluate which element of themselves will predominate and bring themselves as a totality over rekindled spiritual awareness and “life”. And this, according to the Sefat Emet, is a reciprocal process- the spiritual chiyut (vitality) we choose on Rosh Hashana is the spiritual life we are rewarded with.
May we all choose wisely. Shana Tova to all, and may all have a vital live year!