During the Jewish High Holy days we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life before the gates close, either at the end of Yom Kippur or some believe not until the end of Sukkot on Hoshana Rabba. If taken literally, there is something that doesn’t seem right about this. Does it mean anyone who dies during the upcoming year or even during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hasn’t prayed hard enough or hasn’t done enough teshuvah? Or their mistakes outweighed the good they did?
As someone who has worked as a chaplain for many years and is close to numerous people struggling with life threatening diseases, this model can seem to cause harm by blaming the sick for their disease or death.
So why do I still pray my heart out during the holy days and still use this language? This year I experienced this strong message as an intense imperative to invite me to start the new year with the important lifegiving themes of the High Holy days, every day, not just during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
- Facing our mortality and fragility of life every day. This helps me increase my gratitude and be more mindful of every moment I am alive.
- Turning our direction towards becoming our better selves. How can I begin to find moments of forgiveness/compassion for self or others?
- Leaning on our ancestors and our sense of God/the Mystery. I do this through prayer, reflection, and acts of remembrance.
- Giving tzedakah. This helps me be aware of more than just myself. I also notice the unmet basic needs of so many, as well as the myriad ways to contribute to help affect change.
“May you be inscribed in the Book of Life” means to me “May you be engaged with life fully, always, not just during the High Holy Days”. With the Torah beginning this week with Breishit, let’s embrace a new beginning, and harvest the lifegiving learnings from the High Holy Days going forward.