The Book of Life

Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Day 5767 – October 2, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


During my first year as a Rabbi, in Chicago, I became familiar with a book, published each year by the Jewish Federation, listing the names of all donors to the annual campaign. It’s title? The Book of Life.

The choice of the term can hardly be accidental. What Jew does not know the phrase, “the Book of Life?” Our High Holy Day prayers beseech God to write our names, and to seal us, in the Book of Life.

When I was in rabbinical school, I was privileged to study with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, leading Reform mystic, scholar, author, and then congregational Rabbi. Speaking about the High Holy Days, he had an interesting theory about why these holidays draw such large crowds to the synagogue. People are here, he says, to proclaim: “Thank God,” literally. “I made it through another year. I’m still alive! Please God; let me be here next year, too.” He suggested that many of us believe that failure to show up at Temple would result in death.

Such, too, was the presumed implication of failing to give to the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago!

I certainly don’t believe the latter. And even though I have deep faith in the power of these High Holy Day services, I hardly think they will save anybody from death.

I’m not sure, though, that Rabbi Kushner was entirely wrong. We do come here to contemplate our lives. Each of us may conceptualize the Book of Life differently. Somehow, though, that Book, literal or allegorical, is central to our High Holy Day faithfulness.

Last year, on Rosh Hashanah Eve, I spoke about the limits of God’s power. I cited religious fundamentalists, Jews among them, who had proclaimed that the world’s most horrific natural disasters are specific punishments, meted out by God, to avenge some alleged sin of the besieged population. I decried this immature theology, which results in “blaming the victim.” I said that I didn’t believe that God would decree people’s deaths on the basis of their sins.

One member was deeply disturbed. He charged that, if I don’t believe that God punishes our sins, quite tangibly, then I don’t “really” believe in God.

I do believe in God. I pray for inscription in the Book of Life. But our challenging congregant was not entirely wrong: If I don’t believe that God doles out deathly punishment for our sins, can I proclaim that God rewards our prayers and mitzvot?

I’m asking more questions, and perhaps failing as your Rabbi, not providing answers. I wonder, though, if the questions aren’t more important. I asked my Confirmation students for the most important question to which they need the answer. One responded: “How should I live my life?” Or, put another way: Why are we here? What is the meaning of this human life? What does God want of us? Pursuing these great questions, really all one inquiry, may determine how we are inscribed in the Book of Life. Our struggle to believe, our quest to understand why we are here, will continue, long after our moments of faith, our hours of understanding.

Our spirits yearn for meaning, and we hope to find purpose for living in our Yom Kippur prayers and meditations. That’s the real reason we’re here today: Our lives can often be lonely, but on the High Holy Days, we are embraced by a large community of faith. We know little about God, but we hope to discover the divine, here and now.

In short, we seek to find our names in the Book of Life. We need to know how we are written, and how we shall write ourselves, in God’s great Book.

This morning’s Torah portion includes the motivating but unexplained command: “Choose Life!” The implication of this phrase, read on this day of prayer to be sealed in the Book of Life, is that God is not the only “decider who decides;” we, too, have choices to make.

Last night, I introduced you to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. His words are not limited to the harsh tones of my Kol Nidre sermon. Heschel was also a mystic, deeply spiritual and philosophical. Rabbi Heschel suggests that, in order to answer our ultimate questions, we must agree to set out on the journey. Heschel asks, “What is the meaning of my being? . . . My quest, our quest, is not for theoretical knowledge about myself. . . . . What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal amen.”

We are here, because we need to figure out what “choose life” means, to us and to God. We sense that Heschel is correct, when he argues that “ . . . a life essentially dedicated to the fulfillment of [the logic of biology, namely to] ‘Eat, drink and be merry!,’” lacks real meaning. Concentrating on personal happiness alone “results in depriving human beings of all the qualities of being human.” We are here, then, because we are impelled to make meaning out of our lives. We are here, because we know we will die one day. We have a short time in which to do something that matters, beyond our brief stay on this Earth. Today, we pause to ask the questions, to search for the answers that really matter, not just now, but for all eternity; not just in this world, but in heavenly spheres, as well.

Each of us has choices to make, decisions that truly matter, to us and beyond ourselves. Heschel wrote, “To be human is to be involved, to act and to react, to wonder and to respond. For [humans], to be is to play a part in a cosmic drama, knowingly or unknowingly. . . . To live means to be at the crossroads. There are many forces and drives within the self. What direction to take is a question we face again and again.” We are here today, because our High Holy Day liturgy asks us to recognize ourselves at a turning point. It demands that we examine our lives. Yom Kippur next offers an opportunity for renewal. The triviality of the cliché aside, today really can be the first day of the rest of our lives. On this holiest of days, life seems to stop, if only for twenty-four hours. We don’t go to work. We don’t go to school. We don’t eat. We don’t do the things that living people do. We pause from living in the world, precisely so that we can reevaluate how we should live in the world. We pray, we study and we meditate, so that we can figure out how to choose life in the days ahead, in the years ahead, for the rest of our lives.

So what is that purpose? One of my Confirmation students summed it up, when he said: “I have to leave this world better than it would have been if I had not been here.”

We all can do that, each in our own ways.

Last year, during the rodeo, I was standing in line with my sons, behind people I had never met. We were waiting for the pony rides, you know the ones, where the kids go round and round in a circle, slowly, on those gentle beasts. The man in front of me said to his friends that he was so grateful that he could now give his children a bath. Previously, he couldn’t bend down without experiencing extreme pain. Now, with gratitude to the healing hands of a surgeon, whom he named, a member of our Temple, he can interact with his young ones in ways that he never had.

I don’t know if the physician in question finds the greatest meaning in his life in spine surgery, or, for that matter, in giving baths to his own children, when they were young enough for that. What I do know is that his life makes a significant difference to at least one other person. In that small way – and many larger ones, to be sure – he writes his name in the Book of Life.

Or I think of a woman, sitting in my office, speaking of her work on behalf of our Jewish community, over the course of a generation. She doesn’t put it this way, but I know that she has inscribed her name in the Book of Life. She has brought people together, when they had been disunited. She has built for our entire community, ensuring the perpetuation of Judaism in San Antonio in ways that would not have happened, had she stayed home. She has secured institutions to help needy people, without their ever knowing, and without her making their personal acquaintance. Her actions inscribe her in the Book.

Our prayerbook has us ask about how we shall die: “Who by earthquake and who by stoning?” But we may better ask: How shall we live: Who by healing surgical operations and who by mediation and leadership? Who by baking and who by philanthropy? Who by visiting the sick and who by raising children? The list is endless. Each of us must, indeed, find our own way.

In some faiths, a person’s beliefs are what matter most. If Judaism were such a religion, our fate would be significantly affected by whether or not we believe that God is writing us in the Book of Life. Our understanding of God’s power, to reward and to punish, in this life or in the hereafter, would be critical.

In Judaism, our theology is meaningless unless we act righteously. We are written, and we write ourselves, in the Book of Life, on the basis of what we do. As Heschel wrote, “It is in deeds that [we] become aware of what life really is, of our power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of [our] ability to derive joy and to bestow it on others; to relieve and to increase [our] own and other people’s tensions. What [we] may not dare to think, [we] often utter in deeds. The heart is revealed in the deeds.”

If Yom Kippur teaches us anything, it is that our actions do matter.

So do I believe that God will write me, or you, or you in the Book of Life today – or the opposite: that God may decree our destiny for fire or for water, for earthquake or stoning; for a massive, fatal heart attack or to be hit by a bus?

I believe that we have the power to make choices, to find a way to write ourselves in the Book of Life today. On this day, we can determine to live our lives with meaning. On Yom Kippur, each of us can decide to make a difference.

And God, too, can act. God can reach into our souls. God can turn us to true repentance. God wants to hold our hands, as we write our own names in the Book of Life, just as a parent helps a child hold a pencil, the first time she writes her own name.

Is such a faith illogical? Heschel insists it is not: “If a stream of energy that is stored up in the sun and the soil can be channeled into a blade of grass, why should it be excluded that the spirit of God reache[s] into the minds of [humanity]?”

Let us make our lives meaningful. Let us live with the faith that we do not act alone. God is at our side. On this day, may we, with God’s help, inscribe our names, in the Book of Life.

Amen.