Writing Our Books of Life

Writing Our Books of Life
Yom Kippur Morning 5774
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a version of this story:

Imagine, you’re on the light rail in Uptown Charlotte, and you realize that your soul-mate, your “beshert”, the one intended for you, and you for them, is standing right next to you.

You are stunned, overcome with both love and disbelief. Suddenly the doors open, and your beloved is walking off the train car, into the world without you, and all you can manage to ask is, “What’s your phone number?”

You hear an area code and a few digits, and then the doors close.

As the train slides onward to the next stop, you madly dial every combination that completes the phone number, with no success. You run to the parking lot and get in your car, race back to the last station and begin driving around, searching, frantic. You get more and more desperate, fearing that you have lost this person forever, and begin driving recklessly, starting and stopping, running red lights, hoping to catch a glimpse of your beloved anywhere.

Before you know it, you get arrested, held overnight in jail, alone, and await your hearing.
You prepare for the moment of judgment, terrified. You know you have done wrong, and have no real defense for it except that you were chasing after your dearest love, from whom you had only received a few digits.
You enter the courtroom and look up to see that the judge is in fact your soul mate, the one you had been chasing, the one whose absence made you stray so far. Your soul mate says the words that change your life, “I know that you’ve made mistakes. That doesn’t matter now. Right now, I just want to be near you.”

[Thanks to Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman for leading me to that story.]

On Yom Kippur we imagine that we stand to be judged – before our consciences, and before God. There is the great and awesome view – we hold our selves up to high standards, and below a judge on very high. On the other hand, God is also our nearest companion, our dearest love, our consciences reside in the closest places of our minds and souls.

And even on this day – perhaps especially on this day – we imagine that God wants us to draw near. We approach God so that we can be understood by someone who knows who we truly are. We stand in front of a judge who has total understanding of our inner spirits, knowing that we are always doing our best, even when we fall short.

We must closely examine our deepest and most hidden places. We must look at the stories of our lives.

The stories that we tell about God help us tell our own stories. When we talk about God, whom we can’t really know, we really talk about our deepest senses of who we are at our cores, and how we are connected to the world.

When we write a story about God, we begin to write our own stories.

We get to edit these stories, update them, add new chapters to them, and even rewrite them. The story about God and us helps us tell a better story about us, and helps us write our own Books of Life.

There once were two brothers – Adam and David. Their parents loved them very much and wanted them to succeed in all that they did. Adam was the oldest, and his parents fell in love with him right away. Adam’s mother saw in him amazing physical skills. Adam climbed out of his crib on his own, he walked earlier than all the other kids, he was fast on his feet, quick with his hands, and strong. As he grew his mother always said, “Adam, you are a great athlete.”

When David was born his parents also fell in love with him right away. They noticed that he looked around differently than Adam, and seemed interested in investigating things more than moving them. They challenged him with infant and toddler puzzles and introduced him to reading early on. He showed a great love for taking things apart, and eventually for putting them back together. David was handy with devices and a self-learner. As he grew his parents would always say, “David, you are a great scientist.”

When we define others, we change them. Even in the smallest of ways. A recent study tested third graders of about the same level. After being given an easy test, half were told that they did well because they worked hard, and half were told that they did well because they were smart. The students received a second more difficult test, and the differences were amazing. The students who were told they worked hard significantly out-performed the ones who were told they were smart. When given a third even more difficult test, the hard worker crowd did even better. When we think we are smart, we are more likely to believe that we can do well easily, because it comes naturally, without effort, and so we give up more quickly. When we think we are hard workers, we will work harder believing that our efforts will pay off.

We don’t want to be defined by others’ definitions no matter how lovingly they give them. We want to hear them, be grateful for their advice and their compliments, and then use those words as opportunities to write our own stories. We can rework those defining words. David and Adam are great at different things, and they can be great at other things too. We can hear “you are a great scientist” and still go and do well in sales or as an accountant. We can hear “you are a great athlete” and still go and do well as a poet.

The heroes of our stories redefined themselves all the time. Jacob started as a man of the tents, a bookish person, and when he wanted to impress Rachel, he went and moved a stone that normally took a whole group of shepherds to move. Joseph started out as an obnoxious brat, flaunting his dreams about the future to his brothers, and became a humble interpreter of dreams to Pharaoh, and then saved all of Egypt, and his family, from famine. David started as a shepherd, became a warrior who killed Goliath, and then a king.

We rewrite our stories all the time. We will not be defined by others’ ideas. We are the people who persist even when no one believes that we can.

We are the authors of our own books of life.

As authors of our books, we have help with the words – the words of this season offer us writing tools.
We say: “L’shanah tovah” – for a good year.
We say: “G’mar chatimah tovah!” May we be finished for a good inscription in the Book of Life
And in our prayer book we ask: “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim” – write us in the book of good life.

Isn’t this odd?

We could say: have a great year! May you be written for an excellent life! May you be awesomely inscribed!
Instead, we aim for good.

In this, we take the hint from the original author, from God.
Looking at creation over and over, we hear: “God saw that it was good.” When God finished, and felt that all was thoroughly done well, the last verse of Genesis, Chapter 1 (Gen. 1:31) says:
Now God saw all that God had made, and here: it was very good!
“Tov me’od” – very good is as good as it gets for God.

Yet we are so hard on ourselves.

Good is never good enough for us. Our standards are so high.

We want perfect.

My wife Ginny used to listen to me compare myself to professional cyclists and runners – “I’m not really doing well in this marathon, after all, the ‘real’ runners beat me by almost two hours. I’m not even half the runner that they are!” She reminded me that I’m a rabbi, who occasionally runs marathons, not a marathon runner.

I’m sure that we all can think of times when we have held our selves up to unfairly high standards.

Rabbi Zusya was one of our greatest rabbis, and he was upset. His students gathered around him, concerned about his obvious anxiety and said, “Rabbi Zusya, what troubles you?”
Rabbi Zusya eyed his students sadly and said, “I worry about how God will judge me”.
His students were shocked. “Master, how could you possibly be concerned? You are as great a teacher as Moses!”
Rabbi Zusya answered, “That may be. Still, when I go before the Judge of judges, at my final reckoning, the question asked will not be, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ But, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

The goal is to be good. We must aim to be a good representation of our inner self, not some external standard, not some comparison to others.

Why should we aim for good and not perfect? Perfection is a trap – it is beyond us, and unreasonable to even reach for. The world is filled with opportunities for improvement, for doing better. Perfection is not of this world. Those closest to it in our tradition, angels, don’t get the same privileges as we do. Our place in this world is to aim for good, our weaknesses, are our assets.

The Talmud tells a story (BT Shabbat 88a):
At the time that Moses went up to Heaven, the angels said to God:
“Master of the Universe, what is that son of a woman doing among us?”
God told them, “He has come to receive the Torah.”
The angels said to God, “The Torah, the most desired one, the one with whom you created the world – now you are going to give her to flesh and blood? What are humans that you should be mindful of them, and this child of Adam that you should listen to him?”
God told Moses, “Answer them!”
Moses said to God, “O Ruler of the Universe, I am afraid that they will burn me with their breath!”
God told Moses, “Hold on to my Glorious Throne and respond to them!”
Moses said, “Ruler of the Universe – the Torah that you are giving me, what is written in it?”
“I am Adonai your God, Who took you out of Egypt…”
Moses said to the angels, “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you slaves to Pharaoh? Why do you need the Torah? What else is written in it?”
God: “You shall not have any other gods before me!”
Moses: “Are you living among the heathen nations? What else is written in it?”
God: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!”
Moses: “Do you work that you have to cease? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not take…”
Moses: “Do you give and take? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not murder! Do not commit adultery! Do not steal!”
Moses: “Do you have envy? … Do you have an evil impulse?”
They immediately thanked God…right then every one became a fan of Moses and gave him a gift.

One of my teachers, Ari Elon, taught:

“The angels finally accept that the Torah was not for them but for human beings in the real world, who have fathers and mothers, who work and envy, and who struggle with evil impulses.

“The Torah is for humanity, for human beings are the ones who can accept their weaknesses. Those who see themselves as perfect and cannot accept their weaknesses are angels who are not suited or able to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.”

Let us work to improve because we accept with love our imperfections. Let us embrace them as the reason we are here. Only because we not perfect can we relate to the real world and work together to make the world and us better.

We teach practices of prayer and thought to help us review and revisit. The entire idea of t’shuvah – returning to our deeds to make amends, with others, with ourselves, and with God – asks us to engage in thoughtful and compassionate reflection on our stories so that we can rewrite them for a better new year.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman describes the process of t’shuvah:

“T’shuvah ought to transcend the motivation of fear and instead be motivated by an inner vision of our selves and who we believe we ought to be. This is the idea of t’shuvah out of love. In this t’shuvah, memory still plays an essential role but it ‘s no longer God’s memory, it’s our memories. Rosh Hashana as [a day of remembrance] is not the day in which God remembers but the day in which we are challenged to remember.

“The ability to change requires a leap of faith, a faith in our selves, that we can begin anew, that who we were need not determine who we will be. We need to free ourselves from our past, to delete it, so that a new story, a new journey and a new person can emerge. To learn from the past often entails getting stuck there. A healthy revolution needs to be gradual but it also needs a moment of radical departure, a break, and t’shuvah is nothing less than a personal revolution.”

A personal revolution – a return to the past to edit our stories and write new ones for the future – let us enter this new year as writers, let us move from asking God to write us into the Book of Life, and instead write our own books of life. And so we go from the passive object of “kotveinu” – please God write us! – to the active “nichtov” – we will write!

We are the people of books – many books, not just one. And these books are the ones we write about the People Israel, the ones we carry on our backs, and they are the books we write about ourselves, the libraries in our hearts.
Every year we come with here with our books. As we seek to be written for the next year, so we seek to rewrite. We come here as authors and editors, with laptops and red pens. We reflect on what worked and what didn’t and we embrace the mistakes, the imperfections, the weaknesses, as the gifts of a creation that is good, that allows us the chance to improve and fulfill our roles as works in progress.

As works in progress let us be compassionate to each other and our fragile souls.

As authors of our Books of Life, let us write good stories for the year to come.

Let us be our own creators, let us look at our work and say, this is very good.

Let us take this pause on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, to accept our imperfections, and so make the improvements we need to make this year a better year for us all.

We start these holy days here:
Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim – Please write us in the book of good life!

Let us finish them here:
Nichtov atzmeinu b’sefer chayim tovim – We will write ourselves in the book of good life!