The (Face)Book of Life
There is a story told about one of the rabbinical sages of the 19th century.
Someone brought this rabbi a model of a telephone shortly after it was invented. The rabbi spent several minutes examining the device, and couldn’t get over what he was seeing. When his students approached later and asked why he was so amazed, he simply said that the machine encouraged him to strengthen his approach to prayer. He explained that for the first time ever, he was able to understand how someone could speak in one place and then the words would be heard somewhere else, even thousands of kilometers away, without the speaker ever raising his or her voice. This allowed the rabbi to appreciate how it’s possible that even when we pray in a silent whisper, the message can be internalized deep in the heavens.
One can only imagine what this rabbi might have thought if he lived in our generation. Today, every word we say or write is instantly broadcast on screens around the world, and recorded with endless selfies and social media posts.
Our generation can be described as the “recording generation.” We have become accustomed to making a record of every smile, joke, short story — of almost every meaningful, and meaningless, occurrence in the course of the day. Certainly, on many occasions we go far overboard. There is likely no one in today’s world who can’t think of some email, or Facebook post or WhatsApp message that they wish they could pull back out of cyberspace. Perhaps it was made in a moment of weakness or even under an influence beyond our control. But regret over what we’ve written and posted has become a modern emotion that we can all associate with.
On the positive side, this reality helps us better appreciate the Talmudic teaching that all of our actions over the course of the year are “recorded in the book of records.”
Our sages taught that on Rosh Hashanah, three individual books are opened by the heavenly courts: the book of the righteous, the book of the wicked and the book of those who lay in between. For those on the two opposing sides of the spectrum, the verdict is clear-cut, with little deliberation. But the “moderate” candidate requires deep thought by the court, which discusses and debates. That’s what has taken place during the Ten Days of Repentance.
Many people ask what questions the Court considers. While we can certainly appreciate that these “books” of records are metaphorical, we can still be perplexed by the notion of what these books are supposed to represent.
So let’s examine this metaphor against the modern worlds of social media and instant communication. Sometimes we are able to admit our weaknesses and expose the challenges we face in life. Other times, we post stories of pride and happiness, and revel in the good things in life. Those are the two opposing “books” of life.
But the vast majority of the time, the record that we make public lies somewhere in between, and is defined by indecision and a path to progress rather than any definitive answers. This is the “moderate” book.
And indeed the reality of life is this lack of definitive answers. There is no clear black and white.
In all of our lives we are constantly caught up in personal crises and moments where we don’t know where life will take us next. We often question ourselves and ask if we’re doing the right thing. This is certainly true in our professional lives, and no less so in our relationships with our families and spouses.
And this is all the more true in our relationship with the Creator of the World.
The fact is that the reality of life — this “moderate” book — is a dynamic story. There are no definites. Everything can change, and we stand at the center of that change. Whatever is past is past, and we can write new and better chapters.
So as we prepare to stand before God and visualize the books laid out in front of the Court, perhaps we can better appreciate the opportunities that we have, and recognize that even if we are not perfect, the story that is being written is ours to craft.
And with that understanding, may we all hope and pray that the coming year will be one of health and happiness, and may we all be written, posted, updated, pinged (or whatever format we so desire) in the book of life.
Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of the City of Shoham, and Founder and Chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.