Ten Minutes of Torah: Yom Kippur Amidah

In each Amidah for the Days of Awe, including Yom Kippur, there is an insertion regarding remembering us unto life. This imagery of the Book of Life is an important reminder that the Days of Awe are designed to help us deal with both the uncertainty of life and our responsibility to become better human beings. Nevertheless it is easy to mistake the imagery as reflective of a reality in which we are judged by God and, if found wanting, are punished with death. This is a theology that I do not find helpful.

When designing the first pilot draft for the new High Holiday machzor, I was upset because although I knew there was a beautiful explanation of the meaning of the Book of Life offered by the late Rabbi Maurice Davis, even in this age of Google, I could not find the citation. Then one Saturday night, shortly before publication, I was officiating at the wedding of a couple and the parents mentioned the name of their rabbi in New York in the 1970s. The mention of this rabbi’s name reminded me that he had edited a book of great sermons by New York rabbis and that in that book, Maurice Davis had shared his sermon on the subject of the Book of Life.

I bought the book and was able to include this citation in the draft service:

For us…[the] Book of Life has been reduced to words of casual welcome, spoken or written on cards, “l’shana tova tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a good year.” The Book of Life. I wonder. Is that all it means today? When I hear those words, those words to me have meaning. I do not see a ledger in the skies wherein my fate is written, signed and sealed. Nor do I see some greeting card, bedecked with gaily colored scenes, where on the bottom line – unvocalized – appear the words l’shana tova tikateivu. The Book of Life to me is a symbol….It says to me, “You are recorded! What you say is more than words whispered into the wind. What you are is something more than pebbles on a beach. What you do has…an effect.”

With this explanation Rabbi Davis helped me understand that the God in whom I believe may not sit and look at some ledger, like the king in the Book of Esther, but nonetheless every choice I make has consequences. My actions matter. I can choose to do good or evil (usually due to lack of awareness, not malice or forethought).

By placing this imagery in the Amidah, the lesson cannot be avoided. Our lives affect others. We are not only praying for life. We are praying for a life of goodness. We are praying for a life worth living and one worth remembering.

Is anything more important?

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor, and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud.