“May you be Written in the Book of Life” is such a nice phrase to utter at this time of year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most years I don’t think much about it. It is easy to ignore the weight of the words when everyone in your life is healthy.
This year is different. A close friend is struggling with aggressive breast cancer. Instead of casually saying these words, I am fervently praying them on her behalf.
Themes of life and death wind their way through out the liturgy on the High Holidays. The Torah and Haftorah portions speak of the struggle to conceive and bring new life in to the world. The Unetanah Tokef prayer which wails, “Who will live and who will die. Who by flood. Who by fire. Who by hunger …” speaks plainly of the many ways we may die. Most years, I acknowledge these themes, yet concentrate most of my prayers on myself, praying to be a better person, mother, and teacher.
This year is different. This year I am praying for my friend. The mother of young children should not suffer from such a serious illness. It should not be this way.
The liturgy states that “repentance, prayer, and charity, will avert the severe decree.” I do not find this prescription useful in this case. She could do all of those things. I and many others could do all of those things on her behalf, and it might not make a difference because cancer is such an unpredictable disease.
So I sit in synagogue, and I contemplate life, death, and the meaning of prayer. Using the High Holiday prayers as a magical incantation will not cure her. I know this in my bones, and yet I am called to pray. The very act of reciting the words brings me comfort. I feel so helpless in the face of this situation. Yet, here is something I can do.
I can pray.
May you, my dear friend, be written in the Book of Life.
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One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.