Thursday, September 29, 2016

As a New Year Dawns

One of the most famous tropes of our High Holiday season is the notion of the great Book of Life that God is said to keep in heaven and in which are imaged to be recorded the details of our destinies…but specifically not as predetermined at birth but rather as annually recalculated with respect to our success at living up to our own values.

It’s a bit of a difficult image to seize, however. There are about seven and a half billion people living in the world today. Does each have page? That would be one fat book if each does! Or do only those who formally submit themselves to God’s judgment on an annual basis have specific pages? That would make the book considerably thinner! But what of the rest of everybody in that case? Surely, you can’t escape the consequences of your own behavior merely by stepping outside the game in the manner of a jaded athlete who realizes at a certain point that he can guarantee never losing another game simply by not playing! Whatever else it is, life is surely not that kind of game!

And then there are all the fairly dour implications of the concept that we mostly choose blithely just to ignore. If our fates are sealed in the great Book of Life as the gates swing shut in the last moments of Yom Kippur…then does that mean that all who die in the course of the year that follows were sentenced to death by God? What else could it mean? And, indeed, the most famous of all High Holiday prayers, the Unetaneh Tokef, takes just that tack, not only promoting the plausibility of taking all of this literally, but actually going so far as to list the various fates to which God might choose to condemn those unfortunates not written up for another year of life. But even that we all take with a huge grain of salt. Drowning, dying in a fire, starving to death, being strangled…it’s a gruesome list that many can recite almost by heart. But does any of us really think that that is how it works, that people who die in some horrific house fire somewhere were sentenced to death-by-conflagration by their heavenly Judge and were specifically not the victims of a horrible accident or of someone’s deadly carelessness? Surely no one really thinks that! And we think that even less with respect to the victims of crime, that their assailants were merely fulfilling God’s decree for the individual in question and so were not really guilty of having committed a crime at all! Even saying that feels obnoxious and wrongheaded. It certainly feels unjust. But saying what then the Unetaneh Tokef actually does mean—or could mean or should mean—is not quite as simple as it feels that it ought to be.

And yet, despite it all, there is still something deeply attractive about the notion that we are all in God’s hands not metaphorically or merely poetically, but really and actually…and to the extent, even, that the future trajectories of our lives are not arbitrary or accidental but the thoughtful, rational, entirely justifiable response of God to our own behavior, to our own actions, to our own moral worth. In a sense, that notion all by itself is what transforms Rosh Hashanah from “just” a New Year’s celebration into something like the annual Jewish season of being taken seriously, of asserting that what we do matters, that how we act counts. Almost more to the point is the corollary to that idea, which is as arresting theologically as it is challenging spiritually: that the universe has a moral core and that the degree to which we earn the right to our place in it depends on the degree to which we make ourselves worthy of life itself, of the gift of life.

Where the whole concept came from is hard to say. In the Torah, for example, there is explicit reference to such a book, but it’s difficult to say if the passage in question is meant to be taken literally or metaphorically.  The context is a dialogue between God and Moses in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. God is more than annoyed with the Israelite and is considering their permanent eradication from the human family. Moses, ever his people’s advocate, takes it upon himself to attempt some sort of reconciliation. “This people has committed a great sin by fashioning for itself a golden god,” he admits humbly, “but even so I beseech you to forgive their sin. But if that should prove not possible, then erase me as well from the great book You have written.” That’s the first we hear of such a book and we are, naturally, confused: is Moses speaking poetically or is he making reference to some actual thing he somehow knows to exist in heaven, to an actual ledger in which the fates of all who live are recorded? God seems to presume the latter: Don’t worry, God says semi-soothingly, only “those who sinned against me shall I erase from My book.” So there is such a book! Or was God merely picking up on Moses’s image without meaning inadvertently (if an all-knowing Deity even can act inadvertently, that is) to endorse it as a reference to an actual thing? It’s hard to say!

But it’s in the Psalms that the idea has its first real traction…and it’s those two texts I’d like to present to you today.

In the 69th psalm, the context is almost clear. People who know the Psalms only from a distance tend to imagine it to be a collection of irenic odes to faith and are therefore unprepared for the level of violence, fear, and anger that characterizes so many of the poems in the book. The 69th psalm is a good example: the poet, like so many of his colleagues, feels despised and rejected by his peers and by his family. He is in fear for his life as well…and switches metaphors repeatedly so as to convey the feverish nature of the assaults he must somehow try to live through. He has no problem cursing his enemies too, which he does broadly and venomously, praying that God’s wrath overtake his foes, that their homes collapse, that they be stricken with blindness and that their bones become brittle and broken. And then he waxes theological in effort effectively to curse his enemies: “May they never atone sufficiently for their sins to warrant that You judge them charitably. / Indeed, may they be erased from the Book of Life and not written up with the righteous.” And there it is, almost baldly put: the poet imagines a Book of Life in which the righteous are written up for good…and from which the poet prays his enemies’ names never appear. Or that, if they somehow do appear in the book, then that they be erased. Permanently.

It’s an angry curse, but not the only reference to a divine book preserved in the Psalter. In the 139th psalm, the poet is written from a different vantage point entirely. Serene in his faith, the poet imagines God to have been watching him not just since the moment of birth, but long before that: “You knew me,” he writes, addressing God, “as an embryo, as a lump of unshaped protoplasm / You saw me even then for all that I was with Your own eyes; / each detail of my development you noted down in Your book. / All my days were thus charted, even the very last one.”  So it’s not just a book of judgment and verdict, but a kind of log of each of our lives…God’s book is literally the story of each of our lives starting with our earliest pre-born iterations and continuing up until we draw our final breaths and are no longer.

And it was that book—that book which is a log of our lives and the notebook in which Judge God notes down our fates and the record book in which King God keeps track of all humankind the better to rule over them justly and equitably—it was that book that made its way into Unetaneh Tokef and became the symbol par excellence of our holiday season.

But there is one final verse from the Psalms to quote in this context too. A different poet, the one whose poem became our 56th psalm, is in a state of high anxiety. He being watched…and he knows it. His enemies are constantly on the lookout for some misstep, for some critical error of judgment they can use to bring him down. He has his faith as his sole bulwark against those who would do him harm. But does he have the good deeds to warrant God’s protection? I sense we might think that he does, but the poet himself, in the manner of all truly righteous souls, doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, he thinks of himself as unworthy, as base. All, he says, that he has to offer on his own behalf are tears—the copious tears of ill ease and apprehension he has shed over the years and continues to shed as he contemplates his enemies’ possibly lethal wrath. But where are those tears now that he needs them to speak out on his behalf? That’s the question! And the answer is, to say the very least, unexpected: “You catch my tears,” he says to God, “you catch them all in your divine wineskin. / Is that not exactly the same as recording my deeds in Your great book?”

And that is the idea I wish to offer to you all as my personal yontif gift to you all. The notion that, amidst all the splendor of the heavenly throne room, the Almighty has room for—of all things—an old wineskin in which are kept the tears shed by people who yearn for a better world…and that that wineskin is stored beneath the throne of God because nothing on high is more precious than those tears, which the Creator lovingly preserves as a reminder of the nobility of the broken heart, of the soul rent asunder—that notion is something for us all to keep close to our breasts as we make our way through the holiday season.

And the poet’s suggestion that a single tear in that wineskin is worth a page of words in the Book of Life itself is also worth keeping close at hand. To be irritated with the world is easy enough. To be disappointed in ourselves, easier still. But to find the emotion necessary to elicit even a single real tear of regret or remorse…and for that tear to inspire us to reframe our lives for the better…that is the real challenge, and precisely for the reason the psalmist gave: because that single tear is worth a whole page of flowery prose in the Book of Life. To stand before God divested of our finery and without the usual armor of word and accomplishment separating us from our divine Parent, and for all we have to offer to be one single tear prompted by the pure, unadulterated desire to live better and more meaningful Jewish lives—that is the poet’s gift to us all, and it is my yontif gift to you all as well.

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