Scrolling Through LifeBook
Shanah Tovah! We all want to live a long life and be remembered for good. But, today especially we will be pleading over and over for God to remember us and inscribe us in the book of life. The rabbis imagined God as a scribe, diligently writing down all of our deeds on scrolls in the heavenly archives. I struggled so much in writing this sermon about the book of life, because it makes me feel like an imposter rabbi. Do I really believe in this stuff? I have a confession to make to all of you today.
No, it doesn’t help me to imagine some heavenly palace beyond the stars where God is sitting and writing everything down, and deciding if we deserve to live or not.
I confess that in my personal moments of Truth, I don’t feel like God is up there looking down at me, rather it’s in those moments that I realize God is nearer to me than my own breathing. I realize that we are always standing before the presence of the Creator, not just on Rosh Hashanah. In writing this sermon I realized that the writing of our stories in the book of life is not something that God does independently from us. The medieval Jewish philosopher, Bahya ibn Pakuda, wrote, “Your days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.” Today in the great Unetaneh Tokef prayer we say, “You (God) open the Book of Remembrance and it speaks for itself, for every person has signed it with his/her own deeds.” We are the ones writing our own stories and weaving them into the greater universe story. We do this writing in the Book of life on every normal boring day, not just once a year when everyone happens to show up at synagogue. If we really understood this every day, how differently might we behave?
My rabbi friends often bemoan the fact that most Jews only show up for the High Holidays, and for lifecycle events like Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. It’s easy to understand why lifecycles draw such big crowds. These are days of personal and communal transformation. It’s when we mark our departure from one phase of life and consciously enter into a new phase. Lifecycle rituals help us embrace the radical change from who we used to be, to who we are becoming, and we need the greater community to be there to witness and confirm this change has taken place. So we get why you show up for lifecycle events.
But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Why? The summer is over, the school year has already begun, and just as the everything starts to get rolling… Right now we are going to take off from work and school to cook and clean for family and friends? To put on our fancy pants and spend a bunch of days at synagogue? Then it occurred to me that maybe these holidays are so much higher than all the others, because they are less like holidays and they more like lifecycle events, In that they help us mark the passage of time our departure from the previous year into our arrival on the other side of the doorway. They remind us to appreciate that we have survived yet another trip around the sun. They open the path for us to embrace radical change and transformation from who we used to be to who we are becoming.
We pray from the Machzor that “today we stand together before God ba’agudat achat, as a single spiritual unit we stand.” And we do this out of very deep instinct, like salmon swimming upstream. Just stand out at the doors and try to stop people from coming into our High Holiday services and you will see the great force of this instinct pressing us together in a large room as a single spiritual unit. We need each other now to acknowledge who we are who we want to be. So as we stand here together at the threshold of the new year, what we need most, is a way to look honestly at the story of our lives without flinching. We need to see our chapters in the Book of Life.
And now again I feel like a sham, because I just cannot relate to this concept of a distant King or Judge recording all my deeds on a scroll. When we no longer use scrolls, or even books to record things anymore. Instead we have an invisible worldwide web that functions as our collective permanent record. Video cameras, smart phones, exercise trackers, google, facebook, twitter and instagram… ad companies that follow our every digital move, not to mention the NSA recording everything. This will go on your permanent record! Does all of this recording of our lives actually affect our behavior though?
Well, as it turns out… yes it can. Body cameras strapped to police don’t just record bad behavior by officers or people confronted in the field — body cameras often stop the rough stuff from even beginning. Oakland CA’s chief of police claims, “It’s not just that the cops are behaving better when they know the camera is on, but people interacting with us know we’re filming, so they behave better too. It has a civilizing effect on both sides of the camera.” Before the use of body cameras in Oakland, there were over 2,100 use-of-force incidents reported annually. After body cameras that number dropped to 600!
Our new technologies can also help us create new communities. Facebook friends come together to find a marrow donor for someone they have never met. Jews in Brooklyn are finding Jews in India, Uganda and Hong Kong and forming bonds of friendship. Jews and pretty much everyone is turning to the Internet rather than to the local Yenta for their matchmaking needs. These gatherings are not bound by space, or even time. They connect people from the four corners of the earth. They do not replace face-to-face real-time encounters but can supplement and enrich them. Our God, who so delights in community and togetherness, must be having a field day watching over the Internet.
The digital age has changed our perspective on everything, including the very workings of the universe itself. Physicists tell us that the universe behaves like a giant quantum computer that computes extremely fast. On the smallest scale, matter and energy are made up of binary particles, a kind of computer code of life. This raises a very big question, Who (or What) is “writing the code?” Is it an old man with a long white beard writing “the Book of Life” with feather quills on parchment scroll. God’s hardware and software are long overdue for an update. Instead of the Book of Life – let’s at least bring God into this century and call it… “Lifebook!” At the Rosh (head) of the year let’s scroll through our Lifebook year in review and look carefully at the snapshots and videos of our past year.
How many of you are on facebook? During the next ten days, I highly recommend taking the time to scroll through your year in review, all the way back to last Rosh Hashanah. If you’re not on Facebook, you can try doing something similar with your calendar or weekly planner. I scrolled through my timeline in preparation for today, and was blown away by all of the big and little things that happened last year that I totally forgot about. It reminded me of painful things left unresolved and joyful things that I had stopped appreciating. Like that video Valerie took of me teaching Aeden how to swim on our winter trip to Florida. He’s such a little fishie now that I forgot to appreciate that moment until I got to see it again. Or when I was teaching him how to ride a bike in the shul parking lot. Or when the blizzards came to town and we were all stuck at home digging out our driveways. It was bittersweet to see my Grandpa Mitch’s yartzeit memory candle. And the time Emily the chicken got sick and we had to bring her inside the house for a few weeks to nurse her back to health. And the day that all those congregants came out to help us build our dream Sukkah from scratch, And before that Sophie and Aeden’s first day at their new School.
I noticed that I don’t actually post that often, because most of my timeline was from other people’s posts that I was tagged in. It took me a long time to get into Facebook. I always felt so anxious about putting myself out there to the world. I still experience this anxiety every time I am about to post. “Is this something I really want everyone to see? Will they “like” it? Will they comment? Will this be helpful to others?”
We can’t hide and be anonymous anymore. People are Googleing us and looking up our facebook pages, so whatever we post and whatever other people post about us, we are going to have to live with it.
Your days are like scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves the same kinds of questions before posting on lifebook, where it really counts? “Is this something I would want others to see? Will they like it? Will they comment? Will this be helpful to others? The law of karma is like a law of physics. There is cause and effect. We must live as if it counts, because it does. We may not remember whole days, but we do remember moments. Someday, in the distant future when we near the end of our story and we are looking back at our timelines, what will we see? How can we have more meaningful moments that are worth posting and remembering on lifebook? When we share our lives through social media online – we usually hold back from sharing our most vulnerable uncomfortable moments. Like when we lose control of our anger and let loose on someone we love. Why do we do this? Why do we save our best behavior for strangers?
Harvard Professor, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, suggests, “a slightly modified version of the Golden Rule: Do not unto those close to you what you would not have done unto others who are not as close to you.” You can get angry and upset, you can get disappointed and hurt, but if we want our relationships to flourish over time we must treat those we love with at least as much respect as we do for those we have just met.
Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory said, “Our families record our real lives with an unflinching precision. This is the tape that never stops rolling. We may look lovely in that snapshot, that picture of kindliness and good cheer we present to the world at large,
but when we come home and take out our frustrations on our spouses and children, the tape is still running. Our behavior is forever stored on our children's hearts...” Every time we interact with our loved ones, we are telling them how we expect to be loved by them.
Recently, I saw a video of a synagogue event and I felt very uncomfortable seeing myself on camera. Is that how I really look? So nervous? So insecure? We keep trying to pose for the snapshot of our life, so we can post it on Facebook, but on Rosh Hashanah what we really need is to see the video that was posted when we didn’t know the camera was rolling. What do we really look like? We have to look at this video long enough to see the recurring patterns. What keeps coming back? What circumstances keep repeating themselves in our lives? Why do we keep getting into the same kinds of conflicts with people wherever we go?
Saying we are sorry is only the first step in the process of repentance. The great Medieval scholar Maimonides teaches that Teshuvah Shleimah – Complete Repentance can only be achieved when one is confronted by the same situation where he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent. Only then have we completed the process which we begin today. If we want a fresh start then we have to believe in the possibility for change. We have to stop telling so many negative stories about ourselves. We can only be more compassionate and loving toward others, if we learn to judge ourselves this way first. The root letters of the Hebrew word for compassion – rachamim – come from the word rechem which means- womb. To experience compassion (rachamim) is like returning to the rechem - womb where it all began and getting a fresh start. Who doesn't need that in their life at one time or another? Wouldn't we all be better off with a little more rachmanus in the year ahead?
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Din the Day of Judgement, But the machzor reminds us over and over that God’s Judgment is not harsh on this day, rather it is sweetened with the unconditional love that a parent has for a child. God is different from Big Brother, who also knows everything we do and say, but uses it against us. God watches the whole video of our lives with a boundless, heartbreaking compassion.
That’s why we eat apples and honey today. The red, crispy, tart-skinned apple, that’s Gods judgment, And what do we do with God’s judgment? We smother it with sweet golden, gooey, sticky love. Judgment + Love = Compassion
Rosh Hashanah can also be bittersweet when we think of all the people who are no longer here to mark this passage around the sun with us. I recently remembered a very important conversation I had with my Grandpa Mitch of Blessed memory. And it felt so real, like we were continuing that conversation in my head several years after his passing, He was still imparting his wisdom to me in new ways. It reminded me of a teaching from our holy Kabbalah, that the souls of grandparents become guardian angels for their grandchildren. Most people imagine heaven as a euphoric place up in the sky somewhere beyond the clouds, over the rainbow. They believe that the souls of the dead go up there sometime after death. Rabbi Naomi Levy asks, “What if heaven isn’t that far from us? Isn’t God everywhere? Why should an eternal soul that comes from God be banished to some distant stratosphere? Maybe memory isn’t the closest thing we have to people we have lost. Perhaps their souls are closer than we think. Perhaps they are right here among us in some parallel dimension watching and even participating in our lives in ways that we can only sense but we can’t see.
Surprising as it may be to most non-scientists, Albert Einstein concluded in his later years that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. He believed there is no true division between past and future, there is rather a single existence. The most descriptive testimony to his faith in this concept came when his lifelong friend Michele (Mi’keleh) Besso died. Einstein wrote a letter to Besso's family, saying that although Besso had preceded him in death it was of no consequence, he wrote, "... us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one." If you saw the movie Interstellar than you might have an idea of what Einstein is talking about here. Or perhaps you remember singing this line about God’s name from Adon Olam (sing songy) “v’hu haya, v’hu hoveh, vhu yihyeh b’tifara Adon Olam.” We are singing that “God Was, Is, and Will Be.” The Hebrew name for God, YHWH is an impossible combination of the past present and future tense of the verb “to be” in one word. Haya (was), Hoveh (is), and Yihiyeh (will be) all morph into one word/name “Yud Hey Vav Hey” which we might attempt to translate as “The Eternal One” or “Being and Becoming.” Only from God’s perspective can past, present and future all exist simultaneously. When it comes to three-dimensional space, we are free to move back forth, up and down, side to side, but when it comes to time, we are stuck in this present moment and we can only move in one direction toward the future. We cannot go back and actually see everything we posted on lifebook, yet for God it is all still there,
and all of the people that came before us, they too exist eternally on God’s Lifebook. As we will say today in the Musaf Amidah Prayer, “You (God) are the One who remembers for all eternity all that has been forgotten.”
Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi of blessed memory taught that after we die, our souls will relive and fully inhabit every moment of the life we lived. All of the mitzvot we do in this world become treasuries of spiritual bliss in the world to come. Why not increase the good in our lives while we are still alive so that we will have even more joy in the world to come? For whatever you posted on lifebook last year, Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new end.
That is the gift of Rosh Hashanah, that you can always begin again! And you can open that gift with three highly advanced tools of spiritual technology:
Teshuvah Tefillah and Tzedakah - Repentance, prayer and righteous giving…
It’s time to update your lifebook status.
What’s on your mind?
What will you be posting on lifebook this year?
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.