16th Elul – Days are scrolls, and we write them.

Elul 16 24th August

We read in Mishnah (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”

The eleventh century philosopher Bachya ibn Pakuda framed it slightly differently:

“Days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered”

Record keeping is at the heart of the Jewish tradition. Whether it is the text of bible attempting to record the driving encounter between the Israelite people and God, or the Talmudic obligation to ensure that every child is educated and can read and write. ( Kiddushin 29a see also Baba Batra 21b). The words of the shema, recited in morning and evening services (and often at bedtime too) speak of the requirement to persistently teach and repeat to our children “these words” (Deut 11:19) in every conceivable situation. Moses ensure that all his final exhortations to the community are recorded and kept “Take this Torah scroll and place it to the side of the ark of the Eternal your God’s covenant, leaving it there as a witness. (Deuteronomy 32:26).

We have a great reverence for memory – yizkor; we re-enact the leaving of slavery in Egypt every year at seder, the Sinaitic revelation at every Torah service…We name our children after our beloved dead, we know that as long as a name endures that person will never quite die. We teach b’shem omro, in the name of our teachers, so that even in the grave that person will continue to be a teacher.

In our current world we are exercised by who is following our movements – tracking cookies on websites, gps satellites, how our movements are tracked by telephone towers, facial recognition that then targets ads based on our browsing history – and now of course the putative covid passports. But Jewishly we have always lived with knowing that there is a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a process of divine recording.

Given we cannot go off grid as far as God is concerned, we take heart at Bachya’s statement. We have the agency to create what we want the record to show. We are the authors of our own lives. Every day offers the possibility for us to write what we want to be remembered.

image from Memorial Scrolls Trust exhibit

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