Cantor’s Column – September 2020

Sefer HaChayim – The Book of Life

Cantor Ilan Davidson

Each year, as we navigate our way through the liturgy of the High Holy Days, I am often asked about different troubling texts in our prayers. Texts like Unetane Tokef, speaking of who shall live and who shall die, or Avinu Malkeinu, referring to God as our Father and King, or even the concept of our greeting on Yom Kippur, G’mar Chatima Tova, may you be inscribed for goodness. All these concepts, when taken at face value, can be troubling to those of us who believe in our autonomy, or think of God as a partner, rather than a ruler.

A couple of years later, when I was having a conversation before the High Holy Days with my Cantor, I shared with him my struggle with this text. He immediately shared with me his love for my dad and his sympathy for me and my family. He continued with teaching me one of the most important Hebrew and theological lessons of my life. He shared that the word chayim does indeed mean life, but Hebrew is a complex language, and it also means living. When we learn that God will inscribe us in the book of the living, we understand the power of t’shuvah, repentance. When we cleanse our souls through repentance, we make it possible to LIVE our lives in the coming year, with the weight of our transgressions of the previous year, lifted from us, freeing us to live our lives more fully, more joyful, and cleansed.This past month, I celebrated the most consequential birthday of my life, my 50th. It wasn’t because it’s sooo old, but rather, because my father died 39 years ago, at the age of 49. Several months after his death, I found myself sitting in a classroom, studying about the upcoming High Holy Days, when my teacher began to talk about another troubling concept, when taken literally, the Sefer HaChayim, which is traditionally translated as the Book of Life. She ignorantly shared that if we are good, we will be inscribed in the Book and live, and if we are not, we will die. You can see where I’m going with this, and I’m sure you will understand why that was my last day of religious school, having not received a satisfactory explanation when the child who had recently lost his father respectfully challenged his teacher.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing, and the act of asking for forgiveness helps us to not only recognize that we feel short of the mark last year, but gives us the opportunity to forgive ourselves. For transgressions against God, God forgives, but for transgressions against others, only the people can forgive. When we ask forgiveness, whether it is granted or not, we, knowing that we have done the right thing, can forgive ourselves, and be inscribed and sealed for the coming year, to LIVE a fuller life, not weighted by the guilt of our actions. May we all know forgiveness this year, from God, those who we have wronged, and ourselves, and may we all be inscribed in the Sefer Chayim, B’racha, v’Shalom, the book of living with blessings, wholeness, and peace.