Who Signs the Book of Life? Neilah 5782

B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeikhateimun. 

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

Today, I’m thinking about the words we leave behind.

Books with notes in the margin: the definition of a word of phrase, ink of a highlighter over an important passage, a name scrawled in the front cover, maybe even a wish for the book’s receiver. Pages that say: Mazal tov. Good luck. Happy birthday. 

That time we used a permanent marker on a white board - oops - and the faint lines of the date never quite leave, even when we haven’t walked into the building in a decade. 

We are always, always writing. I’m thinking especially about all the places we’ve signed our names, time and time and time again. Checks and rental agreements and greetings cards and books and ketubot and love letters and so on and so on and so on. 

How many times do you think you’ve signed your name in your life? How many times will your name be left in the world once you are no longer here to sign it? 

B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeikhateimun. 

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

We are toward the end, now. The ink is drying enough that the Holy Blessed One is ready to consider our names sealed in the books of our fate. 

When you picture God sitting before the Book of Life, do you envision God with a divine quill? I do, and that is how many of our liturgical illustrations seem to be formed. 

The great piyyut (liturgical poem) the Unetaneh Tokef says: You, God, are the one who judges u’khoteiv - and writes. In Avinu Malkeinu, we ask the Divine: kotveinu b’sefer ḥayyim tovim - Our Father, Our King, please write us in the Book of Good Life. 

God, too, leaves behind signatures:

B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeikhateimun. 

I’m thinking about the things we write that we might not be proud of later. Graffiti we left behind as teenagers. The little scrawled words in public bathrooms saying: Hello, hi, hello, so-and-so was here. Rude poetry, silly drawings, haha made you look. 

Did you know that archeologists have discovered graffiti from the ancient world, and it’s essentially the same things you find in public bathrooms today? The same hi, hello, so-and-so was here, the same rude words and drawings, haha made you look, all from thousands of years ago. All signing our place in the universe, whether we meant it that way or not. 

On Rosh Hashanah, God signs the Book of Life.

Or maybe not...

B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeikhateimun. 

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How strange for this famous phrase to be crafted in the passive. 

After the Unetaneh Tokef claims that the Holy One signs the Book of Life, it goes on to describe the book with these words: ḥotam yad kol adam bo, each person’s signature is in it. 

So, wait… Who signs the Book of Life? 

Your signature, the way it looks scrawled on the bottom of a receipt - or maybe how it appears carefully set down at the bottom of a love letter, written again and again in places you don’t even remember - have you also left it behind somewhere on some page of the Book of Life? 

There is a midrash in Sifrei Devarim, a 2nd Century text, which is mostly interested in the image of God sitting on the throne in truth, judging each of us individually. That should seem familiar by now. And then, in a small aside, it describes a moment in the afterlife in which the Divine does not play a role. When a person departs from this world, so says the midrash, all of his deeds come and present themselves to him, one by one. And each deed says to him: “This is what you did on such-and-such day. Do you believe it?” The man says: “Yes, I do.” And the deed says: “Then sign me!” And he signs. 

Each deed appears before him and requires a signature. When this midrash is quoted later in the Talmud, it loses a part of the dialogue. The deed says: “This is what you did on such-and-such day.” And the man says: “Yes.” And the deed says: “Sign.” The Talmud misses the moment in which the deed says to man: iy atah ma’amin? Do you believe this? I think the Talmud imagines that do you believe this simply meant is this correct. But I hear the deed asking the man: Can you stand for me? Am I an action representative of who you are? If so, sign me. 

If we knew that we would one day have to sign for our decisions, might we be inclined to make better ones? Would we sign the Book of Life with the reverence with which we sign a love letter, or with the carelessness with which we sign for a delivery? 

B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeikhateimun. 

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

I’m thinking about things we write and leave behind that we don’t intend to be permanent imprints. Lines drawn in concrete while it was still wet. Sometimes a deliberate hi, hello, hi - aren’t people always so desperate to say hello. Sometimes half a footprint where we shouldn’t have walked that day, or the pawprint of a cat we weren’t watching when he got under the barrier. It’s not a word, per se, but it says: “I was here, and I shouldn’t have been.” 

One of the places we write the most, and the most carelessly, is into the ether of the internet. We write quick comments while standing in line for coffee, hit ‘like’ while we’re walking, maybe get into an argument or two on our lunch break. But have you ever wondered what happens to those likes and comments, to your pictures and check-ins and statuses, when we are no longer here? Facebook gives us two options for what might happen to our account after we leave this world - three, if you include doing nothing and leaving it open. One of those options is to delete the account. The other is to memorialise it. A memorialised account will never be broken into, but rather exists, untouched, for loved ones to read and reminisce. It is a kind of digital legacy, a footprint in the concrete cordoned off for safekeeping. 

It’s beautiful and deeply strange. How might we write differently, how might we type and ‘like’ differently, if we are conscious that each piece of digital information might someday become a part of a Memorial Account? If we knew that each of those words we leave behind might matter deeply to someone, someday? 

B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeikhateimun. 

There is a story in our tradition, in which the great sage Rabbi Eliezer taught that we must ‘repent one day before death’. “But rabbi,” his students pointed out, “does a person know the length of their days?” To which Rabbi Eliezer responded: “All the more reason to repent today.” Ah - if I were writing a modern version of this tale, I probably wouldn’t change a thing, but… I can imagine the Facebook Rebbe’s version being: “You never know when your Facebook account will be memorialised.” It won’t be opened again to add or retract. There is no more ‘undo’ button. So too, Rabbi Eliezer might say, is life. All the more reason to repent today. We will leave our words behind one day; all the more reason to be careful about them.

We have spent countless hours today envisioning the Divine holding a quill. The Author of the Universe writing our fates. But something shifts dramatically if we envision ourselves holding the quill, instead. If we envision ourselves having to sign for our actions, having to take responsibility for what we leave behind in the world. If the Book of Life is not simply in the heavens, some mystical thing that we cannot touch and can only feel anxious about, and instead… instead, is something that we might have to sign at the end of our time on this earth.

So what do you think? Are you living a life you’ll be able to sign for in the end? I hope the answer is ‘yes’, but if it isn’t - luckily for us, there’s still time to continue writing our lives into the world. 

G’mar chatimah tovah. 


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