What is the Book of Life?

September 11, 2014
Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote that “our days are scrolls, and we write upon them the Torah of our lives.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?

 


Torah vs. Magic: the Case of Kapparot

September 12, 2013
Chickens

Photo credit: Allie’s.Dad

Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may see news  stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.

In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. It’s a cruel practice, and distinguished rabbis have spoken out against it for centuries.

There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it suggests that we can “buy God off” without doing the work of teshuvah.

First, don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this. Most Jews don’t do it.

Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic. Unlike kapparotteshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.

May your remaining Days of Awe in 5774 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!


Ten Things to Know About the Jewish Days of Awe

September 2, 2013
Apples and Honey

Apples and Honey (Photo credit: slgckgc)

This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.

Things to know about the Days of Awe:

  • The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
  • The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
  • The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
  • Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
  • The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
  • Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
  • The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
  • Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.]  During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
  • Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
  • The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”

How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?

  • Attend services.  If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.
  • Read about the Days of Awe, either online or in a book. The Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days is a place to begin.
  • Participate in making teshuvah. For more about that, read Teshuvah for Beginners and The Jewish Cure for Guilt.
  • Eat the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah: Apples, honey, sweets, pomegranates (for a sweet new year.)
  • Fast all or part of the day on Yom Kippur. See Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Wish your Jewish friends “Shanah Tovah!”
  • Consider signing up for a Taste of Judaism or Intro to Judaism course at your local synagogue. They often begin right after the High Holy Days.

I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Sweet and Good New Year!

 

 


Recipe for a Good Apology

August 21, 2012
Sorry on Australia Day-sky writing

Sorry on Australia Day-sky writing (Photo credit: butupa)

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

if we are normal people leading normal lives, there are sometimes people to whom we to apologize. The offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken.”  All of those are useful replies.

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “What do you want? For me to fall down?” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended — not at this point — what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings/ ran over your dog / etc.”  And no subjunctive mood nonsense, either: none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff; that makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just makes people angrier.

Then, after the other person’s reality is acknowledged — then it’s time for the explanation, if you want. “I wanted to tell you how nice the party was, not imply criticism about it!”

And if there was damage done (real or perceived), there’s the question of making it right: “What can I do to make this up to you?” It’s a powerful statement, because it disarms the aggrieved party. What will make this right?  If the deed was bad enough (you ran over their dog with your car) it may be that nothing will fix it, and that’s sad. You made the effort to apologize, and that will have to do. But if they say, “Buy me a new dog,” then it’s time for restitution.

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with the people we love.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____  your _____.”  Say it with eye contact, in a sincere tone of voice.

1a. (optional) “I intended _____, but instead it came across as _____, and I am sorry about that.

2. “What can I do to make this right?” or “Here’s what I have done to make sure this never happens again.”

3. Do it, if you can. If you can’t, make an offer: “I can’t afford _____ but here is what I can and will do _____.”

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

And don’t let those Intentions get in the way.


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