The High Holy Days are again upon us, and as they approach, many synagogues are about to find themselves filled with congregants who are rarely ever seen at a Shabbat service or other ritual throughout the year. Many will have to rent space to accommodate the overflow, while on a typical Saturday, their sanctuaries will be filled with empty seats. Indeed, it seems as though many of us are there to hedge our bets; in a post-ritual world, we explore our Judaism throughout the year through non-traditional means (participation at a JCC being one of them), yet find ourselves jockeying for the non-folding seats on these three specific days (2 for Rosh Hashanah, one for Yom Kippur).
A key problem with this approach to selective worship is that often we can end up reciting long-remembered prayers and humming traditional tunes in a manner that is more rote than meaningful. For example, a central tenet that occurs throughout these days touches upon the tenuous relationship between life and death. “Who shall live, and who shall die,” asks one repetitive line in our prayer books, which is then coupled with imagery of “a book of life” and well-meaning wishes that we be inscribed in it. These passages and traditional greetings conjure up an image of a giant book in the sky which will either have our name in it or not. Is it any wonder then that we flock to the synagogues on these days? Who wouldn’t?
But if we remove ourselves from the literal interpretation of these words, we can find a powerful message that may help us to live better. In truth, “life” has many meanings. When we say someone is filled with life, we’re not talking about their years, but rather about how they live it. We’re talking about quality. So when we ask “who will be inscribed in the book of life?,” the question continues: it asks further, who will be inscribed for a good year?
As part of the liturgy, we are taught that through prayer, repentance and good deeds, we can assure our inscription, and here the literal interpretation holds up well. We know that our lives can be more enriched when we take time to be introspective, when we forgive and let go of our anger and hurt, and when we ask others for forgiveness. We also know that our lives are best enriched when we learn to forgive ourselves, And when we strive to do good for others – when we strive to do better in our personal lives – here too we find that life becomes sweeter . . . better . . . more good.
Personal Jewish journeys are rarely straight lines; they bounce us back in forth between the traditional, the modern, and the possible. As this Rosh Hashanah begins, may you find meaning in your journey, may you live well, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.