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?

 


2nd Week of Elul

September 3, 2014
1st quarter moon

2nd week of Elul

We’re in the second week of the month of Elul.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. In just a few weeks it will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.

Last week was a week for contemplating the snapshot of my life now. What is good? What is lacking? With whom am I on good terms? Do I owe an apology to anyone? What have I left undone? About what do I feel uneasy.

I’ve been stirring the pot. Things have come up, some of them difficult. If they were easy, I’d have dealt with them already.

This week is the week to begin contacting people: the neglected people, the estranged people, the people I may have wronged. Who has been avoiding me? Whom have I avoided? Those are the people I need to reach.

This is the week for reaching out.

Some will reach back, some will not. That is not my concern.

Some will want to talk, some won’t. That is not my concern.

Some will accept my apology, some won’t. That, too, is not my concern.

This is my week to reach out.


Guilt vs Shame

September 1, 2014
Rodin's Eve after the Fall.

Eve after the Fall, by Rodin

The soul-searching of Elul can be healthy and productive. It helps us to get back on track. It can provide the push we need to resolve unfinished business. It can allow us to start the new year with a clean slate and a clean conscience.

One way to get off track, though, is to get confused about the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt is the fact or state of having committed an offense. The feeling of guilt is useful: it’s a feeling of responsibility for having done (or failed to do) the deed in question. It might include remorse at the behavior in question. Guilt says “I did something” or “I neglected to do something.” 

Guilt is redeemable. It is fixable. The way to cure guilt is to make teshuvah. I wrote a post a while back called The Jewish Cure for Guilt about how to deal with guilt.

There are a lot of jokes about “Jewish guilt” but those jokes are not really about guilt. They are about shame.

Shame says, “I am a bad person because X.” Shame wracks the soul and can twist a psyche into a pretzel. Shame is not useful, although people try to use it on each other all the time. Shame may or may not be connected to a particular deed; it’s misery connected to a person’s sense of him- or herself.

Shame is paralyzing. Shame denies the possibility of redemption or change.

Shame requires healing. Part of that healing may be to deal with guilt over things that we have actually done. (See article about the cure for guilt.) The rest of the healing requires a healing of shame about things that were not our doing: things that were done to us, things that were said to us, things that were out of our control. We human beings like to think we’re in control of everything, so some of the healing comes when we acknowledge that we don’t control as much of the world as we’d like.

This Elul, as you do the work of this month, pay attention to your feelings. If you notice that you are in extraordinary pain, or if the list of things to repent seems endless and overwhelming, consider seeking help: a trusted friend, a counselor, a therapist, your rabbi. Elul is for making ourselves and the world better. Sometimes that happens by letting go of shame.


1st Week of Elul

August 26, 2014
new moon

New Moon

It’s very dark outside tonight. It’s the first night of the month of Elul.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. A month from tonight will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.

Tonight I will say my prayers and look at that dark sky. Tonight, I will ask the questions and I will not rush to the answers, because now there is time to let the true answers emerge:

Against whom might I have sinned in the past year?

Some of them are people I know personally. I avoided them, failed to return their calls, whispered about them, excluded them, hurt their feelings, embarrassed them, neglected them, or ignored them. I failed them in some way, large or small.

Some of them are people I don’t know personally. I dismissed them as a group. I thought I knew all I needed to know. I made pronouncements about them. I forgot that “they” are individuals with hopes and dreams, each of them some mother’s child. I forgot that they are made in the Divine Image, just like me.

This first week, I will make an honest effort to identify all the people towards whom I need to make teshuvah. I will figure out, too, what behaviors and attitudes I will need to change in order to make teshuvah, a genuine new path. I will think about what I can change, and what I cannot, to whom I can apologize and for whom an apology would only cause more hurt. In the latter case, I will need to think even harder what to do, in order to put wrongs right.

Before I can do any of this, I need to sit and think and be honest with myself. That is my task this first week of Elul.

For sins against God the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone until the injured party has been appeased. – Mishnah Yoma 8:9

 

 

 


Got Regrets?

August 22, 2014

 

Shame, Blame

In the Jewish calendar, Av is the month of “Terrible Things Happening.”

Given the fallible and fragile nature of human beings, those terrible things are often the product of human behavior. And faced with terrible things, we human beings are prone to blame. We point our fingers at one another, like Adam and Eve in the garden, who tried to blame each other, the serpent, and even the Divine for their misbehavior. Adam’s protest, “That woman YOU gave me did it!” is both funny and tragic.

We approach the end of the month of Av 5774, and this year, all I can say is “Thank Goodness.” Tuesday evening we shall begin a new month, the month of Elul.

Elul is the month that we begin our fall journey of teshuvah, a process of sorrow, responsibility, and change. We notice that we cannot control the behavior of others. We can only control ourselves, and that only imperfectly. We still have our emotions, and we still have our memories of hurts past. But in Elul we are called to ask, “What is my share of this?” and then, “What can change?”

The challenge of Elul is to stop pointing fingers. What have I done, what have we done, and what can be different going forward?

Image by Ian Muttoo, some rights reserved


A Lesson from Daylight Savings

November 3, 2013

Daylight savings time annoys me. It gives me jet lag without the pleasure of travel. However I have to admit that I learned some thing from it this year.

I woke before my alarm, gently, easily, perfectly rested. Then I saw the sunlight pouring in and jerked fully awake, horrified that I had slept through my alarm and would be late to teach my Sunday morning Intro class. I calmed only when I saw the clock: yes, it was only 6:30.

“Fall back an hour” gave me the additional hour of sleep that I usually deny myself. I felt GREAT.

We make tremendous fuss in our culture about “fitness” which is almost always code for “weight.” But we often abuse our bodies in socially approved ways which leave us anything but truly fit,

There is a prayer for the body which Jews have said from ancient times, Asher Yatzar. It reminds us that our bodies are intricate creations which can be disrupted by a small misfunction. I am going to pay more attention to getting enough sleep. So thank you, Daylight Savings, for pointing out to me that I need to make this small teshuvah (adjustment.)

Is there something you need to do to take better care of your marvelous, mysterious body?


After Yom Kippur… What?

September 15, 2013
Cursive Calendar

Photo credit: Your Secret Admiral

So here I am, the day after Yom Kippur, a little discombobulated and perhaps a little overwhelmed. What now?

BACK TO ROUTINE? Shall I just go back to my routine unchanged? Having made my “Day of Atonement” will I go back to my old ways, my old priorities, or has something shifted within me? There is always that option, but then the cycle of the year will be merely a wheel that goes around, every year the same, the years grinding away until I am gone. I want more than that, don’t I?

WHAT HAS CHANGED? I will stop for a moment today and think about the insights of the Days of Awe. What were the resolutions I made? What mistakes did I correct? Did I make specific plans for change? How shall I implement those plans? Is there anyone or anything I see differently today than I did a month ago?

RELATIONSHIPS What relationships did I mend in the past month or so? Now, going forward, how am I going to nurture those relationships? Did I resolve to spend more time with someone, or to spend less time with something? What’s my plan? Have I put anything on my calendar?

I have the power to make changes in my behavior. Now it is up to me.

What’s my plan?


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