Facing the Book Of Live
Rabbi Yohanan said: three books are opened on Rosh HaShannah... (Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShannah, chapter 1, page 16b)
אמר רבי יוחנן: שלשה ספרים נפתחין בראש השנה..." (תלמוד בבלי, ראש השנה פרק ראשון, טז:ב)
[Book of life.jpg]
While I have come to recognize traditional parables, such as this one, are but metaphors, or mere "book covers", for wiser and deeper a message, I never truly understood nor liked the Rosh HaShannah three books parable.
New Year Day is a holiday to rejoice in the birth of the entire world, a universal birthday, literally. However it is also, according to the sages, The Day Of Judgement on which each one of us, based on his or her merits, will be added to a list in one of these books. You will be entered into the Book Of Life if you preformed only good deeds, the Book Of (premature) Death if you have done something awful, or the Middle Book for those whose good and bad deeds are balanced. In the Middle Book you occupy the gray zone of neither here nor there, where most of us are likely to end up.
Here is why I am uneasy with this system. Entry into the book of life seems so out of reach for a mere mortal, why then dangle it in front of me, “this is a mean tease, God”. The book of death is plain scary. And the middle book is just so darn mediocre and lacking distinction. Couldn’t there be for example the book of fun, or the book of depth, or the book of love?
Additionally, the entire enterprise of judging and labeling people by simple moralistic categories seems a bit beneath the Omnipotent, Omnipresent and Omniscient God. We are mortals after all. Can’t we get a break, perhaps some kudos for navigating life to begin with, which is not always so simple? So I must admit that the Talmudic system never sat well with my spiritual intuitions, until a recent realization. The books are more real than one may think in this Facebook dominated age.
In the past decades, for the first time in history we live in a technological and cultural environment where our lives and deeds are recorded in writing multiple times on any given day. The imaginary heavenly record-keeping system, a metaphor that has for millennia encouraged us to reevaluate our conduct on a yearly basis, now resembles physical reality more than ever before. With emails, texts, twitter, social media, and Facebook serving as admissible evidence in civil and criminal court, the procedures of the heavenly Day Of Judgement seem much more tangible, the metaphor an apt one indeed.
In fact our everyday choices do accumulate, and not only in heaven, to paint a picture of meaning, a record of honor, or shame or a mixture of both. In the era of Facebook the need to “face our actions” has become much more poignant and the ability to conceal our actions much more difficult. Yes, the meaning of our lives and the joy we derive from it while on the journey, does require an awareness of and a tending to our “written” record, whether in the electronic cloud, the heavenly ledger, or both.
The innate human gift of consciousness is the ability to engage in personal and spiritual review of our record, teaches us the Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan. Whether or not our recored sufficiently passes the test of conscience, is the challenge we face each year as the New Year comes around. When it does, then we are written up in the “Book Of Life”. Facing, reviewing and correcting each our personal record toward a life worth “posting” about is the deeper meaning of the full traditional Rosh HaShannah greeting: “May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book Of Life, לשנה טובה תחתמו ותכתבו”.
May it be so,
Rabbi Reuben Modek