“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…who will live and who will die.” This prayer that sounds the theme of the Jewish High Holidays continues, in part, “Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time… who will be at ease and who will suffer…”
I first heard of the Book of Life, the image reflected in this poetic prayer, when I was young. In my childish view, I pictured a white-bearded, white-robed, wrinkled old man sitting before a large, lined volume in that magical place called heaven. With a quill he entered the names of those who would be rewarded that year. If I had been a good girl, my name would appear. If not…well, in general, I was a pretty good little girl.
Growing up in the South, surrounded by Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and all the trimmings, I was familiar with the song, “I’m making a list and checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is coming to town.” In fact, that song, which I remember learning to play on the piano, had been a relief from “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king,” and the other carols we sang throughout December in my public school classroom. At some point during my early adulthood, the Book of Life image became troublesome to me: it began to seem too much like Santa’s naughty/nice list.
Years later, on a Friday night in February 1981, the ringing telephone pierced my sleep: a drunk driver had struck my daughter Ruth. She died just days before her fourteenth birthday. While the man who killed her had been drinking for six hours in a hotel bar, she was observing the Sabbath at a synagogue youth group convention. While he drank alcohol, she got high on Judaism and friends. I was told that she had prayed and danced and sung her heart out. Later, that man, apparently blind drunk, plowed into Ruth and twenty other kids who were walking to their hosts’ homes. Two other girls also died. Two more were seriously injured.
The questions were endless—and unanswerable. Why Ruth? Why when she was observing the Sabbath? Why did the driver live, with no injuries, when Ruth and her friends didn’t? Where was God? How could God…?
A half year later, I sat in my synagogue, trying to read the familiar High Holiday prayers through my tears. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written … who will live and who will die …But repentance, prayer, and righteousness will cancel the evil decree.” Had Ruth not prayed hard enough the previous year? Had I not? Was my daughter, who tutored younger children, who smiled a cheery hello to neighbors she passed on her way to school, who valued friendship and was a loyal and caring friend, who expressed her love of Judaism through Israeli dancing, Shabbat observance, and a keen desire to visit Israel—was this promising young Jew unworthy of another year?
Every year at the High Holidays, the image became more difficult for me. The traditional solution, that the Book of Life refers to olam haba, the world to come, did nothing to ease my pain. The idea that the good will get their reward and the bad their deserved punishment after death seemed a facile answer that neither salved my grief nor solved my problem in the here and now. I wanted Ruth here with me, now, in this world. Wasn’t I a good enough person to merit watching her grow up, marry, have children? What did it all mean? What did any of it mean?
And then, a year and a half ago, I received a diagnosis of inoperable, stage four cancer. Initially, as one might expect, I dissolved into shock and tears. Within a few weeks, I pulled myself together and became determined to be positive: to do everything my doctor said as cheerfully as possible, and to live every day with gratitude. Not taught as a child to begin my day with “Modah ani,” a prayer that thanks God for renewing my life each morning, I now find myself saying it daily, sometimes several times during the day, whenever appreciation for another day strikes. “Modah ani liphanekha, I thank you, God, for giving me another day to love my family, to enjoy my friends, to soak up nature’s beauty, to read a good book, to paddle my canoe, to savor a bowl of Chocolate Panda Paws ice cream, to …”
Last fall, after six months of effective but debilitating chemotherapy, as the High Holidays once again drew near, I began to worry about the logistics of walking a mile and a half to services, of sitting through hours of prayers without resting, of physically surviving the holidays. And then one sunny September day, as I lay on my hammock, surrounded by tall trees with leaves that seemed to dance in the breeze before they floated to the ground, I found myself moving beyond logistics to ponder, yet again, the Book of Life. Maybe it’s not God who writes our names, I thought.
I heaved myself from the hammock. In the house, I pulled a High Holiday prayer book off the shelf, rifled through until I found the right prayer, and looked at the Hebrew. No writer. Passive voice. That’s when I saw a new approach to that troubling image of the Book of Life, one that I had never come across before. We are the writers of our own names, the ones who decide whether we will live or not.
This new perspective challenges rather than pains me. I will live as long as I live, as long as God has planned for me. I’ll leave what happens in the next world to the Divine, but as long as I’m in this world, I can decide how I live, even within the limitations set by cancer. I can take walks, even if shorter distances than before. I can count the birds fluttering in and out of our backyard feeders. I can revel in hot summer weather or waste my time dreading the coming winter. I can talk to and love my children and grandchildren, spend time with friends. It’s up to me.
I have given up my childhood belief that God annually inscribes our names for life or death. Rather, I am convinced that it is we who write our own names for life as long as we choose to live each day fully. In Deuteronomy 30:19 we read, “choose life, so that you may live…” It’s my choice whether to slump through my days resentfully and to bemoan my fate or, rather, to live with as much energy and generosity as I can muster.
I still grieve for Ruth and always will. But I now believe that she wrote herself into the Book of Life every day of her short existence because of the way she lived: with vibrancy, compassion, and devotion.
May we all inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life daily to create a year filled with joy, love, accomplishments, and gratitude.