Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (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”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace. We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.

 

Ki Tavo: creating our own narrative by our own actions. What we do becomes what we are.

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, …, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose… You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him; “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors to assign us.” …. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” ….. And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Eternal your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of you. (Deut 26:1–3, 5-10, 26:11)

The commandment at the beginning of the sidra is familiar to us, reminding us to tell our story in such a way that we do not just focus on harvest, or on our good fortune, nor even to tell it while recognising that our good fortune is not simply the result of our own effort, but to create a narrative that puts our experience into the context of the historical experience of the Jewish people.

Telling our story is how all of us make sense of our lives. Each of us has a narrative running through our consciousness, each of us notices most easily what fits into that narrative, manages to ignore that which cannot be meshed into the story.  The theme of these days of preparation for Rosh Hashanah – that of opening and reading to book of our lives, emerges in part from the awareness of the stories we construct about our everyday experience.  But while each of us may be the centre of our own continuous narrative, Jewish teaching does not allow us to become self-absorbed. Instead we are expected to see ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves. We are part of a people. We live beyond this moment – we live in the span of the whole experience of our people.  And the way we express ourselves religiously is woven into our internal and external narrative. We have to become aware not only of the immanent God with whom we can create some form of relationship of “I – Thou”; The God we worship is the God of history, the God who has no limits of time or space. Ever since we accepted Torah, Jews have been taught to see God at work in the world around us, in the historical experience of our people, and in the humanity of others.

Each of us, like the Israelite farmer bringing his first fruits, is required to tell a story, to render an account – before God and to our innermost selves, of who and what we are – a narrative that explains just what it is that spurs us on to action in this world. In telling his story, that farmer was commanded to look beyond his immediate reality to a vision of what his life was to be about. So, we too, are asked, when telling our story, not to ignore the “real world” but to transcend it, to direct our attention away from the concrete trivialities of our material existence and toward those goals, however exalted and “unrealistic,” that God would have us set for our lives.

The liturgical formula that is preserved in the verses at the beginning of ki tavo is a rare example of the prayer life of ancient Israel.  We use it in a number of settings – from the Pesach Haggadah to the liturgy of bikkurim, and its familiarity speaks to us and reminds us that the story of the redemption from slavery which led to the covenant at Sinai is a foundational one for us as Jews. Without it our stories are in danger of sentimentality. But it isn’t just the words that teach us.  We are moved from words to actions. The ritual begins with our declaration to proclaim our understanding and our faith. Then we go beyond the declaration into action – the tachlis.  Having acknowledged the Source of our blessing – God – and told the story of our own historical vulnerability, remembering our impotence and pain, we go on to do something intensely practical – to share the offering with the Levite/ priest and the ger–“the sojourner/stranger that is in your midst.” (Deuteronomy 26:11)

The ger, (Sojourner/stranger) is almost a synonym for the idea of the vulnerable, the one who does not have land or resource, the one without the support of family or landsmen, the person who is quintessentially alone. Today the closest equivalent is likely to be the refugee or the asylum seeker, washed up without possessions in a foreign environment. Torah requires us not only to acknowledge our own good fortune, but to behave directly out of that acknowledging, to routinely share with those who do not have the same good fortune as us.  The act of thanksgiving commanded at the beginning of the sidra leads us to act even before thinking about the action, getting us to do a good thing, to perform a mitzvah, that will shape our understanding of the world, that will shape us.  The requirement to care for the vulnerable enters into the narrative we live by each day, we cannot disregard it.  It is no surprise therefore that tradition teaches that “In the future age, all sacrifices and prayers will be abolished, except that of thanksgiving”. (Menachem of Gallia, in Vayikra Rabbah 9:7).

In this month of Elul as we approach the High Holy Days and we think about what we have done and what we have not done, what we should do and what we fear we will never do, it is important to remember that these days are the white fast, they are days of Awe but they are also days of thanksgiving for all we have, for knowing that God will not desert us, that God will let us find our way if we search. They remind us that we should not forget our past nor think only of our present. They remind us that we have to find the words to tell the story that is true for us, that gives meaning and shape to our lives. And even before we really understand, we have to act.