By Rabbi Greg Alexander
As I write this, we have just lit a candle for my late mom, z”l – her first yahrzeit. My siblings and their families from Joburg and London joined on a video call as we shared three generations of memories. It’s interesting that it falls at the same time that we are preparing for the High Holy Days. Tisha B’Av has passed, Elul is soon and the thoughts turn to the themes, prayers and music of yontiv.
Running through the liturgy, there is a real sense of life hanging in the balance. On the one hand there is a heightened sense of our fragility, that we will be judged for our actions and that some will not live to see another Rosh Hashanah – “Who by fire and who by water”. And then there is the call to “Remember us for Life, the Ruler who seeks Life, write us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, G-d
of Life.” Life and death, hanging in the balance.
I love the writings of the S’fat Emet, Rebbe Yehudah Leib of Ger, the Chassidic master who lived and taught in Poland at the end of the 19th Century. His writings deal with some of the greatest challenges of meaning at a time that the world was radically changing in Europe. Changing in political and social realities and also in thought. Jews who had lived for centuries in ghettos were emerging into a new world where universities and jobs that had been closed off to Jews were now open, and many were assimilating into this new world and leaving their Judaism behind. The S’fat Emet wrote and taught for these Jews to inspire them as well as the faithful.
He says this:
“The human heart is the tablet on which G-d writes. Each of us has the word LIFE engraved in our hearts by G-d’s own hand. Over the year that word gets covered over in grime. Our sins, neglect of Torah and prayer, the pace we demand from our lives conspire to blot out the LIFE that still lies written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we ask G-d to write that word again. And on Yom Kippur we ask G-d to seal it.”
What a powerful image. Our heart is a tablet on which G-d writes. I can almost imagine that word LIFE, chaim, written on my heart. And I can relate to the idea that over the year it tarnishes and gets covered over. Our lives are so full, so busy, so much happening and, let’s be honest, not all of it is great for us. Through our choices and the stuff that happens around us, to us, we get buried in things that don’t serve us best and don’t allow our true selves and true purpose to shine through. Layers of grime cover our hearts.
And that is why the High Holy Days are such an important time of the year. It’s not that we can’t do this work anytime, but we don’t. And then the High Holy Days are such a crucial tool for re-setting our moral compasses, for bringing us back to our true selves. “Write us in the Book of Life”, we ask, and that surely means more than just “give us another year in this world”. It surely means that we dedicate ourselves to living our best lives.
Every year we are called on to take out the cleaning cloth, the spray-bottle of vinegar and scrub away the grime. Until that pure heart shines again. What might that look like for you? What might it look like to live every day in the awareness that the word LIFE is written by G-d on your heart? What are the layers that have encrusted your year until now?
There is a beautiful shift that happens over the Ten Days of Returning. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we ask the Merciful One to “kotveinu b’sefer – write us in the book of life”.
I don’t know if you noticed, but in the last service of Yom Kippur, the Neilah service, we don’t just say kotveinu b’seifer ha chaim – we say chotmeinu b’seifer – “seal us in the book of life”. What a chutzpah! We assume that we are already written in there and now we ask to be sealed in for the year ahead! Well, if we have done the work, why not?
Let us take this time now as we get ready for a New Year, to think about what layers of grime have covered over our life-source, our living heart, our true self, and how we can rededicate ourselves to living. L’chaim – shanah tovah. Have a life-filled year ahead.
Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za
• Published in the September 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.
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