We are about to celebrate Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year which begins the ten days of repentance concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these ten days, we add many new prayers into our liturgy for example, ‘Remember us for life, King who desires life and write us in the book of life – for your sake, God of life’. Life, it seems, is a critical feature of these additions – write us in the book of life, write us for a good life. It seems that life itself is at stake. What does this request for life mean?
At the heart of Jewish thought, is the assertion that human beings have the ability to choose between right and wrong. This understanding is established in the verse in Deuteronomy 30:19 where God tells the Jewish people, ‘This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your children shall live.’
This verse however, leaves us with a difficult question. What is the purpose of God telling us to ‘choose life’? Surely, if life and death mean either continuing to survive or not, God is not offering any real choice at all. Furthermore, there is certainly no need to tell us to make the obvious choice and choose life. The answers to these questions reveal a very deep principle that contains a deep and enduring relevance today.
The Torah records a very interesting conversation between Jacob and Pharaoh. Shortly after Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he sends them back to Canaan to fetch Jacob, his father so that they can come and live in Egypt. When Jacob arrives, Joseph introduces his father to Pharaoh. The conversation that follows between Jacob and Pharaoh is very interesting. Pharaoh, seeing an elderly man walk into his palace innocently asks Jacob how old he is, as it says in the Torah (Genesis 47:8) ‘And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”’
Jacob’s answer is very strange. ‘And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my dwelling are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their dwelling.”’ What did Jacob mean when he replied with such a long winded answer?
The Russian commentator Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Weiser (1809 – 1879), also known as Malbim explains that Jacob and Pharaoh were having a discussion about the meaning of life. Pharaoh asked Jacob ‘how many are the days of the years of your life?’ Jacob responded by saying that there are two types of life. On the one hand there is what he refers to as ‘the days of the years of my dwelling’. The Hebrew word for dwelling is לגורla’gur meaning to reside in a temporary sense. In other words Jacob is telling Pharaoh how many years he has physically been alive for 130 years.
However, Jacob continues and adds ‘the days of the years of my life have been few and miserable’ meaning, there is something else called life that is not about simply living. Longevity is very nice but it is not a goal in and of itself. Life is not just a question of survival. Jacob is saying to Pharaoh it is the quality and meaning of my life that I care about, not simply my age.
We know that Rosh HaShannah is our yom HaDin – Day of Judgement. This judgement is an appraisal of how we lived our lives during the previous year. What are we doing with the unique gifts that God has given us?Life is not just a question of survival, but appreciating what we have. In the coming days we pray not only for life itself, but for the gifts of life; for prosperity, health, the welfare of our community and so on. We pray for the things that make our lives meaningful.
In turn however, God tells us to ‘choose life’ meaning, invest your time wisely. Use the gifts that God has given you to live life the way it is supposed to be lived so as the Torah tells us ‘you and your children shall live’. God is not promising that we will simply survive by choosing to live. He is telling us that the secret of Jewish immortality is to invest our time carefully and to live a meaningful Jewish life because our children, and every generation after us will follow in our footsteps. When we care about our relationship with God and fill our time with meaningful activities, we are not simply surviving life; we are living life to our greatest potential and ensuring that our children do the same.
With that, I wish you all a Shana Tova U’Metukah, a good and sweet new year filled with meaning, growth, prosperity and above all life, for you, your families, the Northwood community and the entire Jewish people. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.