Friday, September 30, 2011

The Book of Life

One of the most well-known--and most fundamental--teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and the Chassidic movement as a whole, is that everything that one experiences happens because of hashgacha pratis (divine providence), and happens for the purpose of teaching a lesson in avodas Hashem (divine service). Therefore, one should constantly think of which lessons can be learned from every day life events.

This thought, and its opposite, ran through my head as I sat and listened to a Rosh Hashana speech given by a Reconstructionist rabbi. He discussed the traditional concept of Rosh Hashana as a day on which God sits in judgment and determines who will be written in the "Book of Life" and merit to live for the rest of the year. (Apparently God has an extensive library as other such books include the "Book of Sustenance" and the "Book of Health", etc.)
While nobody over the age of ten, even amongst the most Orthodox, believes that God sits there with a physical pen and writes in a physical book, even the concept that God selects a day to make judgments about the whole world, and that are prayers affect those judgments, seems quite illogical.

Even if one can accept the concept that one can actually change God's mind through prayer, which is quite a philosophically difficult position to accept, it still seems illogical to believe that God would choose one day of the human calendar upon which to make an essentially irrevocable decision. Why would a prayer said in the middle of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan matter less than one in Tishrei? And more fundamentally, why would God punish someone for not praying? The prayers on Rosh Hashana are primarily praises of God, and a perfect God shouldn't need praise. Of course, traditional sources do explain that God desires prayer in order to benefit the one doing the praying, but if that is true it seems illogical to harm or kill someone for the sin of not trying to improve oneself.

So, for someone who does not believe that God is sitting in judgment determining our future, or who does not believe in the traditional concept of God at all, what is the point of Rosh Hashana?

According to the Rabbi's speech, which seems quite consistent with the little that I know about Reconstructionism, on Rosh Hashana we are written in the book of life not by a heavenly decree but by our actions. When we make a conscious effort to do teshuva (change our actions) and improve ourselves, then we can consciously write a better future for ourselves. Through setting aside a day (or two) to reflect, we can write a future of life, health, and prosperity. No divine intervention needed.

Of course, this is easier said than done. An Orthodox, yet open-minded, friend of mine told me recently that the main problem with my fence-sitting is not my lack of religion, rather my lack of decision making. She believes that I am not taking enough control of my life and am instead letting life happen to me. I believe that is definitely a valid criticism and perhaps something that I ought to focus on during this Aseres Yemei Teshuva.

Regarding the belief of chassidus that one should take everyday events as a lesson for avodas Hashem, perhaps the opposite is true. The Reconstructionist approach of taking the concepts of avodas Hashem as a lesson for everyday life seems to have a lot of merit--and fits in quite nicely with the "Repurposing" concept that I wrote about a few months ago.

On that note...

G'mar chasima tova!


  1. The third of Hillel's famous Three Questions is "If not now, when?"

    G-d is eternal, and presumably has all the time in the world. We are mortal, and our time is limited. The calendar isn't for G-d's sake, but for ours. I don't know about you, but I tend to procrastinate. If I don't have a deadline, stuff doesn't get done. So, without that Tishrei deadline, I'm not sure that people would spontaneously undergo teshuva (repetence and return to G-d) in Cheshvan. Spiritual shortcomings would be like that junk closet that never gets cleaned, the last 5 lbs that you never quite lose, that mountain of financial paperwork that you would ignore until tax time, etc.

    When I finally joined a weight loss group last year, they made the comment that good intentions weren't enough - if something was a priority, you had to schedule time for it. That's true for something as mundane as meal preparation, and it's also true for taking time to take a hard look at ourselves and our deeds.

    Regarding your 2nd last paragraph - I commented on a previous post that it's important, in a marriage and as a parenting, to take ownership of the decisions that you make.

  2. JRKmommy: If the calendar is for our sake and not for God's, then why would God have chosen only one day for judgement? Why not more than one? and why that one in particular? What about Aleph Tishrei makes it necessary for God to schedule his judgement on it? And if the calendar is really for our sakes, because we need to set deadlines for ourselves in order to ensure the important things get done, then why is it necessary for tshuvah in particular to get a deadline set for it by God, and not by people? with apparently no regard for individual need?
    Why should I believe any supernatural being knows all of humanity well enough to set one single standard for it in ANY case regardless of context?

  3. Ruthie,

    It seems to me there are no real answers to those sorts of questions other than asking for the sake of asking something. Why don't you ask why is it that God ordered Noah's ark to be 300 cubits instead of, perhaps, 298.6757 cubits?