August 24, 2012: The Book of Life (Shoftim)


Leshanah tovah tikateivu! “May you be inscribed for a good year !”—this is how we heartily greet each other for the New Year. The well-known motif of being inscribed in the Book of Life, as well as the more somber impressions of the Untaneh Toqef prayer (“who shall live and shall die?”), both derive from the following Talmudic passage:

“Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for the in-betweens. The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life; the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death; and the in-betweens are suspended and stand from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are written for life, and if they do not merit, they are written for death.” (bRosh Hashanah 16b)

What are these books? Does enrollment in the Book of Life ensure staying alive one more year? Does the converse imply that one is destined to perish before next Rosh Hashanah, chas ve-shalom, God forbid! Or, is there another way, perhaps less superstitious and more profound, to view this imagery?

I recently came across the following pronouncement, attributed to Franz Kafka, which suggested to me a new way to think about the Book of Life. He said: “we are sinful not so much because we have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, but because we have not yet eaten from the Tree of Life.” (Moments of Transcendence, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 16) Normally, one would expect a cynical comment from Kafka, known for his bleak outlook on the existential condition of humanity, but I find this one both astute and optimistic.

Kafka refers, of course, to the two named trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but God banishes them before they have the opportunity to eat from the Tree of Life. It’s important to read the parable not as a mere fairy tale, but as a profound meditation on what it means to be human. Adam and Eve represent everyman and every woman. The Tree of Knowledge represents the awareness of right from wrong, and the Tree of Life represents the meaning of life itself. The key to unlocking the lessons of the Biblical story is to view Adam and Eve’s so-called punishment as “not really a punishment at all, but the painful consequence of being human.” (Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, p. 76) Having partaken from one tree but not the other, they—we—are caught in the middle, somewhere between the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, between instinct and reason, between bestiality and divinity.

What is life, after all? In nature, the essential characteristic of life is growth. The essential characteristic of growth is change. If we knew everything, there would be nothing to learn. If we always acted right the first time, there would be no opportunity to improve. We would, in effect, be (spiritually) dead. As my Rabbinic mentor said to me recently: “Brian, you are going to make mistakes. The question is not whether you are going to fail, but how you handle your failures.” Similarly, the final chapter of the book This House We Build—Lessons for Healthy Synagogues reads: “Traumatic moments will occur in all congregations. The question is how resilient the congregation is when those moments do occur. Healthy congregations bend but do not break in the face of traumatic episodes. Rather than becoming crippled by pain, they find ways to release it and understand its meanings. They repair themselves.” (p. 356)

When confronted with mistakes, shortcomings, and conflicts in ourselves and in others, we certainly have the option to avoid them. However, by summoning us to partake from the Tree of Life, Kafka challenges us to move toward the source of our anxiety. The Book of Life and the Tree of Life are the same. Being inscribed in the Book of Life doesn’t guarantee physical survival any more than eating from the Tree of Life would guarantee immortality. Rather, “therefore, choose life,” (Deuteronomy 30:19) the ringing rejoinder of the High Holidays, means: choose willingness to learn over closed-mindedness, choose change over complacency, and choose growth over stagnation. Leshanah tovah tikateivu. May you be written—may we write ourselves—in the Book of Life.