[Sermon] The Book of Life: Accounts Ledger, Novel, or Diary?

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

 
“It is out of kindness towards human beings that God remembers us and reviews our deeds year after year on Rosh Hashanah, that our sins may not grow too numerous; that there may be room for forgiveness; that, our sins being few, God may forgive them”
(Sefer ha-Chinnuch, anonymous work discussing the 613 commandments, C. 13, Spain).

Even if, for the rest of the year we do not hold to a belief in a ‘biblical’ God, the ‘Days of Awe’ and the accompanying rabbinic liturgy reel us back to such imagery. God, sat on the Throne of Judgement as we – not only this Congregation but the whole House of Israel – pass before our Heavenly Sovereign, praying that on balance our deeds are skewed toward a scrawl – I bet God’s signature is like a doctor or rabbi’s – in the Book of Life promising a year ahead of health and prosperity, meaning and worth.

“Judgement:” Judgement when we apply it to the vast majority and particularly this year, is an unfortunate term. In general, we are good people; and we live at a time when we are surrounded by polarised and concretised conceptions that lead to judging others, generally by label – size of house, political views, clothes we wear, number of children, ethnicity, religiosity etc. – and without first assuming good intention. For both reasons, the term ‘judgement’ seems too grave, severe for most years of our life and is contemporarily unfortunate; the potential is there to alienate, confuse or distract us from the opportunity of Rosh Hashanah.

We end up like the ancient Israelites queuing before Moses day after day to receive pronouncement on all matters of law and life regardless of magnitude or pettiness. How many squandered hours expended in the glare of the Sinai sun until Jethro, the one not born of this mishagas – nonsense – but married in to the mishpacha – family – stated the obvious: you needs levels of justice to pronounce levels of judgement on levels of question or misdeed.

There may be a few in the House of Israel who require an audience – for they seek such arbitration – or deserve to hear a home truth, or to stand accused, with God sat on the Throne of Judgement. But for most I believe the view of a back of a comfy armchair would do; in a room subtly lit and a glow illuminating from a hearth, radiating kindness, concern and nurture.

Draped over the chair’s back is a blanket that’s tapestry, like the folds, ridges and veins addressing the soft skin of an aged hand, illustrates a sacred narrative and affirms a sanctity and wisdom attained only through time.

In that chamber, Rosh Hashanah is the opportunity to spend time with an old friend, as Einstein once called God, “The Old One.” For an old friend finds words to comfort and to reassure; realised by simple truth. Not of crimes, for none have been committed; rather of sins, small and plentiful that have blotted our essential, yet vain pursuance of perfection. Our task was only to be the perfect us. How simple that sounds; as simple the impediments to its achievement.

Receiving such honesty is requisite in striving towards perfection: That this year we will be a step closer to perfecting ourselves. That honesty may demand that we choose yet a further image of God. I think Arthur Green, the American scholar of Jewish mysticism and himself an important contemporary theologian, might help in this regard:

“The God of judgement stands for conscience; Rosh Hashanah becomes a time for self-examination and commitment to growth and changes to habits. The essential statement of faith is that we are capable of change.”

Rather than standing before the Judge and Arbiter or embraced by the protective presence of God, we stand before the “Mirror of All.” Rami Shapiro, contemporary American rabbi and poet wrote:

  Today we stand before the Mirror of All
  To see ourselves as we are.
  We come with no gifts, no bribes, no illusions, no more excuses.
  We stand without defence and wait to be filled.
  What will fill us?
  Remorse, certainly. So much error and needless pain.
  And joy: remembered moments of love and right doing.
  We are too complex for single-sided emotions
  And we are too simple to be excuses by our complexity.
  Let us be bold enough to see,
  Humble enough to feel,
  Daring enough to turn and
  Embrace the way of justice, mercy, and simplicity.

“It is out of kindness towards human beings that God remembers us and reviews our deeds year after year on Rosh Hashanah, that our sins may not grow too numerous; that there may be room for forgiveness; that, our sins being few, God may forgive them.”

Our first conception of God, requires no memory from ourselves – God remembers us, reviews our deeds, and writes us – we hope and pray – in to the Book of Life: the accounts ledger. In the cozy room, we require an openness to recount or willingness to recall when prompted in conversation by the occupant of the armchair. The Book of Life: A chapter of our life’s historical novel replete with fact and legend. Before the ‘Mirror of All,’ the onus is all on us; and our memory is fallible. That is why this Book of Life contains a diary entry for each day that we live.

Bahya ibn Pakuda (Philosopher and Rabbi, early C. 11, Spain) wrote:

“Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered.”

“God calls upon us, symbolically through this season but actually at all times, to be the best human beings, morally and spiritually, that we can be. This demands of us a constant openness to change and growth (Arthur Green).”

We cannot now erase previous entries, only choose not to read them or simply forget their content. Yet recalling all that is possible, guides us as we choose what we write on the the scrolls for each day of 5779.

Eternal God, we know that it is only You before whom we stand on these Days of Awe. Guide us to conceive of You to enable us to benefit most from this precious opportunity to insure that our entry in this year’s Book of Life is a little better, not worse. “It is out of kindness towards human beings that [You] remember us and review our deeds year after year on Rosh Hashanah, that our sins may not grow too numerous; that there may be room for forgiveness; that, our sins being few, [You] may forgive [us] in the Book of Life.”

Keyn y’hi L’ratzon – May it be God’s will

Amen

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