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Everyone's an Author

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

With only a few days away from Rosh Hashanah and having just started saying selichot, the aura of the Yamim Noraim are certainly upon us. Like the name indicates, this period in the year brings upon us certain awe and feelings of apprehension. This time of the year, I even meet people who express vivid feelings of anxiety relating to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This anxiety reaches its peak in what's probably the most moving part of the davening on Rosh Hashanah in the tefila "Un'tane Tokef", the tefila written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz:

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"On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time etc."

All this seems to create an atmosphere of complete humbling in the presence of Hashem, where we are at his mercy to inscribe us in the book of life, almost on the verge of intimidation. Is this the nature of our relationship with Hashem?  

These sentiments seem to be echoed as well in the pesukim that we read in shul this last Shabbat. Parshat Netzavim starts with Moshe proclaiming to Bnei Yisrael that they are hereby entering into the covenant with Hashem. The covenant is for Bnei Yisrael to keep Torah and Mitzvot and to be rewarded for doing so, or conversely, betray the Torah and Mitzvot and suffer the consequences. In addition, Moshe stresses that this covenant is binding not only for those present at the time, who accepted[1] on themselves the covenant, but it is also binding for all future generations to come as well. [2]

Is it fair to obligate a person or a nation to an agreement of such consequences without their consent just because their ancestors agreed? Would a Jew not be justified to claim that he has been given a raw deal and been placed in an unfair position: Either live your life according to a strict, limiting and unbending system accepted by your ancestors some 3000 years ago, or choose otherwise and suffer the consequences?

The answer to these questions is given by Moshe Rabeinu himself to Bnei Yisrael at the end of the Parsha:

"Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil.

Inasmuch as I command you this day to love Hashem, your G-d, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments, His statutes, and His ordinances, so that you will live and increase, and Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in the land to which you are coming to take possession of it.

This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.

To love the Hashem your God, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life and the length of your days…"[3]

The covenant that Hashem made with Am Yisrael is a covenant of life and death not because of obedience or disobedience to G-d, but because it is the truth of the reality of the world we live in.[4] Hashem has "done us the favor" of revealing the depths of that truth through Torah and Mitzvot in order to facilitate life itself. The choice that every Jew faces is not one of tyrannical subservience to G-d or freedom thereof, rather a choice between living life to its fullest capacity and potential or not. That is the bare truth of our ongoing and never-ending covenant with Hashem.

As witnesses to this covenant Moshe calls upon heaven and earth. Rashi explains the significance of calling upon them:

‘I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses, etc.’: Hashem, said to Yisrael, ‘Look at the heavens which I created to serve you. Have they ever changed their ways? Has the sphere of the sun ever failed to rise from the east to illuminate the entire world…?

Look at the earth which I created to serve you. Has it ever changed its ways? Have you ever sown in it that it did not grow? Or have you ever sown wheat and it yielded barley? …’[5]

Just like that heavens and earth have their nature and purpose and naturally realize their essence, so too does Am Yisrael realize their essence through Torah and Mitzvot.

Back to Rosh Hashanah and the books of life and death. Contrary to the image that comes to mind of a person petrified, begging Hashem (or an angel?) to inscribe them in the book of life, Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin explains[6] that the book is a person's heart, and the writing is the actions of a person on one's own heart.

This is in fact in accordance with the exact language of both the tefila "Un'tane Tokef", and the source for it in the Gemara where it says that one is inscribed or written in their book, not that Hashem or anyone else inscribes them. [7]  

The same idea was expressed both by the Maharal[8] and the Sfat Emet[9] as well who state that the "book" is oneself and the inscribing is done through our actions themselves.

We all are writing our own books every day. Every thought, word and action are words, lines and pages in our own books. They are the books of our life or death. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are unique opportunities when we can page back and read through those lines, find the mistakes and correct them or sometimes even start writing a completely new story.  

Certainly Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are awe inspiring times. However if we understand correctly the nature and purpose of our relationship with Hashem through Torah and Mitzvot, and understand the full responsibility we have for materializing that relationship, we should also be filled with joy and happiness for the opportunity to reflect and renew that relationship,

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"I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live; To love the Hashem your G-d, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life and the length of your days…"

May we all be zocheh to write books of Chayim Tovim and Shalom,

Shana Tova.


[1] Though the response of Bnei Yisrael to the second covenant made in Arvot Moav is absent from the text, unlike in Sefer Shmot where they said "Na'aseh ve'nishma". In fact, the Torah does not relate anything about Bnei Yisrael at all in Sefer Devarim, besides Chapter 34, verse 8.

[2] Devarim 29:9-14.

[3] Devarim 30:15-20.

[4] " , , , , , , , , ." ( , .)

[5] Rashi, Devarim 30:19.

[6] Takant hashavin. "… "


[7]" " On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed.

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[8] Maharal, Derush Le'shabbat Te'shuva," "

[9] Sfat Emet, Metzora "" . .


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