The following is the message I delivered on Rosh Hashanah to residents of the Lytton Gardens Senior Community in Palo Alto and then, with some changes, to fellow congregants at an alternative Kol Nidre service at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City. To give credit where credit is due, I was inspired by the theme of my father's 1949 Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon in which he examines the Zochreinu prayer and raises the question, "What is this life that we pray for?" We answer the question in very different ways. Nonetheless, it is very sweet to draw from the well of his knowledge and spirit.
During the Holy Days we insert a prayer into the Amidah. It has four short phrases, each ending in the word chayyim—life!
Zochreinu l’chayyim, melech chafeitz bachayyim, v’chotveinu b’seifer ha-chayyim, l’ma-ancha Elohim chayyyim.
Remember us for life, Sovereign who delights in life, And inscribe us in the Book of Life, For Your sake, God of life.
Why do we pray for ourselves to be entered into the Book of Life? Even though we all may seek longevity, I doubt that many of us pray literally to be inscribed in a Book of Life. We are speaking in metaphor, and it’s this metaphor I would like to examine with you tonight. Let’s explore three questions: first—who, metaphorically, is doing this inscribing—that is to whom are we praying? Secondly—when is the inscription rendered—does it really happen during the ten Days of Awe? And finally—what is this Life that we are praying for—is it mere survival?
Question 1. Who is doing this inscribing?
If you’re like me, you don’t envision a God sitting in judgment, weighing our merits, and inscribing our fate in a heavenly journal. So, to whom do we reach out for salvation? I’m sure that among us there are many different answers to this theological question.
My response is that rather than reaching out, I find prayer a reaching in—to the spark of Divinity that is within me. I choose to believe that that spark, that energy, is in each of us, in all of life and is what connects us one to the other and indeed to all Existence. If there is any truth to this, then when I pray to the Divinity within me, I am simultaneously praying to the Divinity within you and in all of Life for support of my greatest longings. Therefore, to answer my question of who is doing this inscribing, I would have to say each of us possess that power.
That brings us to Question 2. When is the inscription rendered?
We say these prayers annually, but is this decree of life or death rendered once a year? Many of us have worked in organizations that conduct an annual performance evaluation. This may have some benefits, but the concept has its flaws as well. A good manager won’t wait until the end of the year to provide feedback. She will continuously acknowledge what’s working to reinforce those behaviors and make immediate corrections of things that need improvement.
Likewise, our inscription in the Book of Life cannot effectively be an annual review. Though we set aside this special time for reflection once a year, self-reflection, forgiveness, and the desire to change are most effective when they are part of a daily, not an annual, practice. Indeed, we write our own story every day. We render a continual verdict that we bestow upon ourselves by our daily thoughts, words and deeds.
If we were to pause each day to truly take stock, then we would inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. Each time we stop to appreciate the miracles of daily existence, we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. Each time we stop to express gratitude for our abundance, we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. Even when we face great challenges—and we all do at one time or another—each time we stop to recognize and accept our challenges as part of life rather than to become distracted by anger, resistance, and self-absorption we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life.
Think how we could put ourselves in the Book of Life every day if we were to take even a few moments for quiet contemplation. I invite you this Yom Kippur, and really at any time, to do this. Just sit quietly, and observe the thoughts you are drawn to. See to what degree you sit in judgment about yourself or others. Listen for your own prayers and the prayers of others. Exercise gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness for all, yourself included. Where there is growth there is life, so consider how you might make changes in your life to continuously grow and improve.
The answers, therefore, to our first two questions are: we are doing the inscribing and we are doing it continuously.
This brings us to our third and final Question. What is this Life that we are praying for?
Ignoring for a moment some of the modern medical, ethical, and legal debates about what constitutes life, if we talk about the most common understanding of our physical existence—our hearts, lungs, and brains all functioning in good order—would mere survival itself be sufficient to answer our prayer or does life mean something more to us ?
For some, especially if we are plagued by illness, physical existence may be our primary concern. For that, however, do we not seek the counsel of doctors and therapists rather than listen to shofar blasts, ancient prayers and words of Torah?
I offer that at the very least, for those of us who are gathered here at this Kol Nidre service, it seems we may be seeking more than mere survival. We also want a life of connections—connected to others in meaningful relationships, connected to society by contributing to it in meaningful ways, by performing acts of righteousness and loving kindness.
There are other connections as well. Most of us flourish when we are connected to the beauty of the natural world. We seek intellectual connections through great works of literature and the arts. We seek emotional connections through loving words and touch.
Ultimately we seek spiritual connections as well, through all of the above, or through maintaining our awareness of our place in the continuous chain of the generations, or through finding that Divine spark of which I spoke earlier—the Divinity within each of us that connects us to all of Life.
The answer to my three questions now read: we are doing the inscribing; we are doing it continuously, and the Life we are praying for is one of spiritual connection.
What if we now rewrote the Zochreinu prayer not as a plea to an external judge, but as a reminder to ourselves? Instead of asking: Remember us for life, we might pray May we remember that God and Life abound in each of us.
Instead of addressing Sovereign who delights in life, we might invoke: May the Divine power within each of us delight in our Life.
Rather than to recite the plea: …inscribe us in the Book of Life, we might urge ourselves: May we live our lives to continuously be connected to each other and to the Source of Life.
And finally, instead of praying: For Your sake, God of life, we might pray: For the sake of the Divine Spirit that is in us all.
That is my prayer for us tonight.
In closing, I’d like to offer another way to express the awe of recognizing the miracle of our lives and the spiritual essence within, using a melody and words recorded by the great spiritual leader Rabbi David Zeller, of blessed memory. You already know the tune. It was the beautiful niggun that we chanted at the beginning of our service this evening. There are actually a few simple words that go with this tune that capture the essence of what I am trying to impart. Zeller’s words succinctly declare, “I am alive! I am alive! And who is this aliveness I am? Is it not the Holy Blessed One?”
Please join Dan and me now as we put these words and this melody together.
[To hear a sound clip go to http://davidzeller.org/aliveness/]
[To hear a sound clip go to http://davidzeller.org/aliveness/]