What Exactly IS This “Book of Life”
|Rosh Hashana 2010 / 5771
Teaching by Sarah Yehudit Schneider
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on Rosh HaShana, one for the wicked, one for the righteous, and one for the benoni.1 The thoroughly righteous and the thoroughly wicked are inscribed straightaway, the former in the Book of Life and the later in the Book of Death. The benoni’s fate hangs in the scales until the final reckoning on Yom Kippur. If he uses that time to generate merit, he’ll be written into the Book of Life. But if his demerits supersede, his name appears in the Book of Death. (TB RH 16b)
This teaching on Rosh HaShana is certainly true, but not obviously so, for its exceptions outnumber its proofs. There are just too many holy souls fated with early demise, and far too many psychopaths that prosper year after year. And then there is the holocaust (and pogroms and the like) where righteous millions die in their prime while their slayers live to a ripe old age. The Talmud is teaching a much more subtle truth. There is quantity of life and quality of life, and the Talmud, here, speaks to the latter. Yet while quantity of life is easy to measure, quality of life is hard to pin down. Its criteria vary from person to person and also shift with the stages of life.
A survey of folks throughout the world identified nine ingredients to Quality of Life: 1) health, 2) nurturing and stable family life, 3) community affiliation, 4) material wellbeing, 5) political stability, 6) climactic comfort, 7) job security, 8 ) political freedom, 9) gender parity.2 Yet even these “universal” keys to the good life cannot be what the Talmud has in mind. True, our Rosh Hashana liturgy does include prayers for these things in its litany of requests. Yet, is that really how we gauge whether a person made the cut—whether he entered the category of tsadik3 and earned an inscription in the Book of Life? If a person has a hard year or dies young do we assume he was judged wicked on the Days of Awe? No, it is clearly not that simple. There are just too many exceptions to make lack-of-suffering a meaningful benchmark of spiritual standing.
So if it doesn’t guarantee longevity or freedom from travail then what is the point of this Book of Life? Why should I strive to be listed there? To answer that question we need to explore the Talmud’s definition of “life” which most likely derives from the Torah’s use of that term:
When the Torah urges us to choose life, it is not merely banning suicide. It is directing us to choose eternal life, to prefer options that enhance the soul, for these are everlasting acquisitions. Material profits are finite. We cannot take them past the grave. They are subject to death. Self-actualization, integrity, generosity, courage, wisdom—these are gains that enrich the soul, and as such, they are permanent possessions. They are death-resistant profits. The Torah is not asking us to renounce the world and become ascetics, but it is exhorting us to give priority to eternally enduring benefits when calculating the pros and cons of a range of options. “Choose life” means: invest your assets in death-resistant securities, in ventures that enrich the soul.
Throughout the ten Days of Awe we add requests for “life” into our daily Amida.4 (This is apart from the special liturgy recited on the holydays of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur themselves):
“Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, O Living G‑d.” [inserted into 1st blessing of Amida].
“Who is like you…Who recalls His creatures mercifully for life.” [inserted into 2nd blessing of Amida].
“Inscribe all the children of your covenant for a good life.” [Inserted into 18th blessing of Amida].
“In the book of life, blessing, and peace, good livelihood, good decrees, salvations and consolations, may we be remembered and inscribed before You—we and Your entire people the Family of Israel for a good life and for peace.” [inserted into 19th blessing of Amida].
It is clear that the primary striving of these special New Year’s prayers is to be inscribed in the coveted (and mysterious) Book of Life. Yet, while most of us interpret this as a plea for health and longevity, this is probably not the Talmud’s prime intent.
It seems more correct to view these words as a prayer for HaShem to help us accomplish the tikunim that are going to appear on our task list this year through life-empowering choices. The Torah’s #1 key to quality of life does not show up in the nine-point survey mentioned above. It is the gift of identifying the most spiritually productive option in any given moment and then picking it with a whole heart because that really is our first choice. It is the boon of genuinely preferring the option that packs the most “life”—that is maximally in line with spiritual law—for that is the one that is sure to produce the most enduring good.
Every soul comes into the world with a list of sparks that it must raise. A spark is a sliver of consciousness. The totality of sparks attached to our soul is the sum-total of lessons we will absorb in our days whether from life experience or book learning. We acquire wisdom through wrong choices as well as right ones. When we grab for a glittery pleasure and it turns to grit in our mouth or we suffer purgation for a wrong action that nobody even saw—the discomforting consequences of these mistakes burn spiritual law into our nerve net, and thus, despite ourselves, sparks get raised. Yet this journey through the underworld is not the path of life, for so much of the energy expended and pleasure enjoyed gets obliterated in the purgation. The residue of eternally enduring value is minute compared to the drama of the ordeal and the losses (i.e., death) it produced. Some portion of the sparks of every life will be raised through this adverse route. (And for some unfortunate souls, it could even be the bulk.) Yet, the point is to learn from these falls and failures and make wiser decisions next time…to better recognize the path of life and choose it at the next turn.
For we also gather sparks along the high road, by sacrificing for integrity and picking the most spiritually productive option. That is the “path of life” and that is what it means to be written into the Book of Life: where our commitment to life, as demonstrated by our deeds and sincerity of prayer, evokes a reciprocal response from on high. HaShem commits Himself to help us choose life, by providing opportunities from without and guidance from within.
So I want to bless us, as individuals, as a community and as members of the larger world community that we should cultivate an insatiable taste for life (in the Torah’s sense of the word)….a passion for life that is pure enough and potent enough and integrated enough to get us inscribed in the Book of Life, so that every decision we make this year should take us along the path of life and bring us, via the most efficient and least painful route possible, to the Tree of Life. And together we should greet the harbinger of life…the messianic redeemer who will carry us across the threshold to the era of eternal life.
כתיבה וחתימה טובה לכל העולם כולו
1Benoni – Literally, Intermediate Person. The Talmud uses the term here to indicate someone whose merits and debits are equally balanced.
3 Tsadik is the Hebrew term for the thoroughly righteous person in the Talmudic quote above.
4 Amida is the standing prayer of (now) nineteen blessings that is the central prayer in the liturgy.