11th Elul – The Book of Life is Open

The main theme of the days of awe is that of judgement, with one of the most powerful images being that used by R.Yochanan to prompt us into reflecting on how we are living our lives – that of the three books opened on this day, one for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly good, and one for everyone else. While the two extremes find themselves immediately “written in the book”, the rest of us have ten days to make a decision where our names will go.

I love this image, all the more so in a digital age when books are freighted with the symbolism of permanence that screens cannot provide. And to me the image is not frightening, not about a pre-ordained fate we will be unable to avoid, not in fact to do with God’s sentencing us, but everything to do with our being able to make a judgement and a record about how we are living our lives. To quote Bachya ibn Pakuda –“ days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.” The idea of our past experience not just vanishing into history but having a real impact on our present leads us to a number of different thoughts. Firstly, that memory matters. Memory is what roots us, gives us identity, shapes how we think and act. To have a book where Life is recorded and can be examined is to hold memory.  Second, that even if we choose to forget something, it doesn’t fully go.  I can choose to forget what I did, to hope that my denial will win the day. But the record in my “book” doesn’t forget. Which brings me to the third idea – that our actions do have consequences.  What we have done matters, and where it requires resolution the “book” is available to remind us.

I like the book of life precisely because it is a book. It is a permanent record but it is constructed in such a way that while we might carry it around with us it does not impede our progress. In a book we can turn over a new leaf, and begin again on a fresh clean page. The past still exists, it is not erased, but it does not have to be brought to mind. We can be shaped by our past without having to be distorted by it. It is, if you like, a symbol of having finished some business when we write on the new page – having made the reconciliation or the resolution, the past can be consigned to the past, visited when necessary without intruding too much into the present.

As a child I used to be afraid of the Talmudic prompt – would I make it? Would everyone I loved be written in the right book? Would they not pay proper attention and be punished by God for it in the coming year? How could God write the name and allow a terrible death to await an unsuspecting person?   And then I began to understand the powerful impetus to life that exists in Judaism – “choose life!” Says God, and I saw that we write our own books of life, they are quite literally aides memoires for us to read and see – am I choosing life? Am I behaving in an ethical and moral way? Am I trying to be a good person? Am I able to let go of negative aspects in myself and embrace more life enhancing ones? Am I learning?

The Book of Life isn’t there to scare us, it is there to remind us to get on with it. Every book has a final page and when the time comes we want it to be a book worth reading.

A choice each year to be inscribed into one of the two books isn’t a final choice, just as our book of life isn’t a new book each time. But some years we choose to hold on to our anger or grief or denial and stick there, not moving on, effectively dead, and other years we take the risk, let go, admit failure and  acknowledge fault and move on. And when we let go of the burden, record it and then turn the page, we are firmly inscribed in the book of life.




Parashat Shemot: naming the past honestly with all its inglorious realities

In his Chumash, Rabbi Dr Hertz comments on the story of the exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, and, as part of his argument for the historical reality of such an experience says “What people would invent for itself so ignoble a past? A legend of such tenacity, representing the early fortunes of a people under so unfavourable an aspect, could not have arisen save as a reflection of real occurrences”.

His comment brings home to us the truth of the way we write history. Written most often by the winners, it us usually a tool for the glorification of our past. Rarely do we record the miserable realities of hardship or pain, the mundanity of grinding poverty, the banality of living simply to survive – instead we tend to cast a glowing light on our past, speak of the golden ages when everything was apparently so much better than it is now, ascribe attributes and events to show our antecedents fitting an image we feel they should have.

Only the Jews it seems, record our history in all its embarrassing baseness. We record the anger of God against us, as well as God’s redemption of our people. We record our lowly origins, our family breugess’, our bad behaviour as well as our good

.  Reading the Hebrew bible we find real people emerging from the narrative, people in bad moods, people who are afraid or selfish, who favour one child over another or who can’t quite let go of a bad habit. We meet character traits in our ancestors that we can recognise easily today, the challenges that face us now can be seen to have been faced before. We are unusual in that our stories about our past show the meanness, the sadness, the destitution, the low social status. Our history is too important to us to leave to the myth makers – we have to have it recorded as it was, and we have to repeat it year on year in public, reminding ourselves of the shortcomings in our less than glorious past.

It is because we have recognised the importance of our history, its centrality and its impact on our present that we have continued to be Jews. It is because we know and reprise our origins that we are able to develop our covenantal relationship with God. There are no secrets, no glosses, and no skeletons in the cupboard which might suddenly appear and throw us off balance. And with the stories of our past of slavery and poverty, of ancestral wrongs and religious dead ends, we tell the other stories too – of those who listened and heard the presence of God, of amazing selflessness, of faith and courage, of journeys into the unknown leading to blessing and covenant.

The word ‘Shemot’ means ‘names’. We will be reading the names of those who went down to Egypt with Jacob, in preparation for telling the stories of Exodus, the journey into the desert, the leap of faith into the future. Before we can go forward, we must root ourselves in our history, before reading of the exodus we remember how we got to where we are. Jewish tradition is very clear that our present is rooted in our past, and who we will be must emerge from who we have been.

Beginning to read the second book of Torah, with its sense of new beginnings, of God returning into history, of a great journey about to be made, we remember the weight of our history even as we start a new year in the secular calendar. We may be closing the door on another year, but all that has gone on in this last year should not be forgotten by us. We are the people who remember things as they really were, not as we should like them to have been. We are the people who are not afraid to write a history that does not glorify us, whose heroes have faults, whose stories expose problems. As the New Year promises a new future, remember to honour the past by remembering it as it really is.