By Rabbi Michael Laitner, Director of Education for the United Synagogue
Amongst the images of Rosh Hashanaa are the heavenly books of judgment which the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b) describes; the Book of Life for the righteous, the Book of Death for the wicked and a Book for those whose conduct lies somewhere in between; with their judgment being influenced by their actions during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in particular.
These books are mentioned in the Untaneh Tokef and Avinu Malkeinu prayers which we recite on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) suggested that our understanding of these books not be confined necessarily to the granting or not of physical life. Rather, they may reflect a judgment on the spiritual merit that a person has achieved over the last year, an inscription in the Book of Life referring to their reward in the World to Come – their eternal life.
Further developing this idea, he taught that these annual inscriptions even include those who have departed from this world. People’s influence lives on after their death and hence, their souls can accrue further spiritual merit even then. The impact of the life that each human soul has lived is considered in light of the year just passed and the ongoing impact of their actions on those who are alive.
This concept presents us with an opportunity. As we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we must consider how to ‘write’ our own personal book for the year ahead bearing in mind the legacy we wish to create. What effect do we wish to have on the ongoing story of the Jewish people and the world? Our impact as better Jews and citizens can resonate positively for generations.
To do so, it might be helpful to consider questions such as: How can we best use the gift of time? How can we look after our spiritual and physical health? Is there room for improvement in the way we communicate, in person and electronically? In addition, take a look at Rabbi Gideon Sylvester’s ‘Rosh Hashana Checklist’ elsewhere in this Daf, which gives further suggestions for tangible changes we can make.
This year, we observe Rosh Hashana in unusual and challenging circumstances which make some of the questions we consider more acute than usual. Our own ‘personal book’ for the year ahead will likely be very different to that of the year just past. Whether you are in shul, home or elsewhere for Rosh Hashana, I hope that God will answer our prayers for the good with effects that are positive both now and as they ripple into the future. Shana Tova! I wish you all a good and sweet year ahead, inscribed by God into the Book of Life.