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Rabbi Joey's Erev Rosh Hashanah Drash

Erev Rosh Hashana Drash, 5777/2016

Writing the Book of Life

Rabbi Joey Wolf

It’s hard to write these things.  That’s what I was thinking while I was writing this drash.  Can you imagine – I’ve been writing drashot for the High Holidays for nearly 40 years– and it just gets harder.  It’s a Book of Life.  And I wonder:  What is it that I haven’t said before?  What’s new?

While writing, I held out the possibility that I’d figure out what I’m trying to say in the process of writing.  Somehow just sitting down and writing is a hopeful thing.

And then I considered the Book of Life from a very different perspective.  I wondered what this metaphor of an open book would mean for the mothers of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher.  According to the Talmud, publishing the Book of Life is an open-and-shut deal for the tzaddikim (the so-called righteous) and for the re’shaim (the so-called wicked).  The tzaddikim get first publishing rights and the re’shaim – well, their publishing possibilities aren’t even in the discussion. 

But what would those mothers have to say about the Book of Life? 

What’s the type-face in the Book of Life?  Obsidian fonts?  Edwardian?  Who decides all of this stuff?  By whose design are certain folks left in and others left out?  Are we still using white-out?

The poet/essayist Claudia Rankine writes about the kind of anger that refuses “to be erased.”  It resists “whiteness,” because it won’t accept it.  But ultimately, she says, the effort it takes can make you feel lonely.  She speaks of “a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility [Italics mine] will alter the ways in which one is unperceived.

We can talk about the Book of Life as much as we want, but I’d guess she’d say that “being written into it” may not even in the long run take care of the problem.  You may be inscribed, have a sentence or a paragraph written about you, and still be unacknowledged, unobserved, unloved.

Or, put differently, there’s Raha Jorjani’s assertion in the Washington Post that black people in America should qualify for treatment as domestic refugees.  Or Jamaican American Garnette Cadogan’s monograph on walking – how you encounter the city, discover its open spaces and closed spaces, how you claim it consistent with the movement of your body.  You feel it like you’re one with the blood coursing from your heart to your external limbs.  He describes having been a child and walked the streets of Kingston and then, upon moving to New York, there were quite a few surprises waiting for someone who was black – the ricocheting pedestrians scurrying from one curb to another to avoid him, the gratuitous pat-downs by cops, even getting punched when a frenzied white man misinterpreted his being too close, as he passed him on the sidewalk.  If you think in terms of the sentences lined up on the pages of the Book of Life as broad avenues and boulevards, quaint city blocks – I guarantee you that there are many who don’t feel as free as we do to navigate them.

Cadogan writes:  “So I walk caught between memory and forgetting.” . . .

Nee-zacher v’nee-katev – these are the words we say in the Machzor throughout these holidays.  “Remember us for life.  Write us into the Book of Life.”

Racial otherness is not only about being squeezed out – it can be about toeing a thin line, or feeling the need to conform to a rigid idea – like the NFL  quarterback who has refused to stand during the national anthem.  He’s taken some abuse, but he’s gained surprising support too.  There was at least one navy veteran who suggested that a code of respect (for a flag, for the country) should cut both ways; and if one, in this case a black person, doesn’t feel the respect coming his way, then why should all these so-called patriots be raining down hatred upon him? 

This bland whiteness requires people to wipe out their pasts, to live in denial of a complex amalgam of stories and identities that brought us to this point today. 

I love how the black writer Mississippian Jesmyn Ward muses about her past.  It came as a shock to her that after some DNA analysis it turns out that her ancestry is actually 40% European.  At first, this genetic profile threw her off course, but she realized the point that should have seemed obvious:  about her enslaved ancestors submitting to rapacious masters.  So it provided her a clearer narrative voice through which to contribute to the conversation about racial and economic justice and the acknowledgment of history. 

Ward refers to a conscious kind of memory, a shift in thinking, maybe in “editing.” She says, “That’s how I remembered [Italics mine] myself.  I remembered that people of color from my region of the United States [the delta region] can choose to embrace all aspects of their ancestry, in the food they eat, in the music they listen to, in the stories they tell, while also choosing to war in one armor, that of black Americans when they fight for racial equality.”

So, then, black identity, inscribed if you will, is not just a counter-narrative.  It’s a way of publishing a Book of Life whose commentaries run down both sides of the page – I can relate to that.  It’s about resisting the violence that stamps out who we once were, the yearnings, the strivings, the excruciating pain, the rage that still smolders, the sadness and the love that got us here.  It’s about candor – about facing the future without sanitizing the past.

As we arrive at Year 5777, we ask the Teshuva questions.  So you and I know that we’ll have the next ten days to do our cheshbon nefesh (our soul searching).  According to the Talmud, we’re neither all bad nor all good – so the ledger is held open for us; we’re somewhere in the middle.  But, if you are like me, maybe you’ll also be asking different kinds of questions, something like these: 

If until now, year after year, I’ve been telling this story, rehearsing this rap about how I’m here with what I’ve “got” over the course of considerable time, I’m  starting to wonder what I might be doing unconsciously or in a less than honest way to remain inside a bubble of sorts.  I keep coming in here – repeating myself.  Do the words make sense?  Do the facts check out?  This Book of Life I’ve been writing – what if it’s bad fiction, a Readers’ Digest piece?  Should I be a part of a larger political conversation going on, writing bolder prose?  Might I be showing it around to a broader audience?  In certain ways, maybe I’m limiting the political space I inhabit in my speech.    

There are other ramifications of Black Lives Matter – specifically Jewish ones.  The Book of Life in our imaginations used to seem like something old – you know, the binding falling apart, the pages fraying.  But it’s getting written right now.

The old edition had pages that were broad, squared off, in neat lines.  You know, we’d think in terms of the standard immigration tropes, how our grandparents or great-grandparents arrived here in the western hemisphere from Lithuania or Poland or Romania, how they escaped pogroms and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and how they came to this country as peddlers or tailors or seamstresses and worked their way up, first inhabiting the tenements or living in inner city duplexes alongside aunts and uncles.  Later they moved to the suburbs and maybe they became business owners and then white collar professionals. ... For all intents and purposes, it’s climbing the ladder and becoming a part of the tapestry of America – becoming white!  There were challenges along the way, but we made it.

But there are alternative scripts.  We can look at Jewish identity in a wholly different manner:  we may be Jews of choice or Jews of color who arrived via very different routes, and more recently … Maybe we’re Sephardic.  Or we may be gender-queer Jews or conversos, in which case there are story-lines that need to be exhumed – ones that were previously deleted or eviscerated.  And how about the Jewish families who knew poverty and heartache all along and were put off by Jews who “made it”? 

When upon occasion I get outside of Havurah and join with the so-called “mainstream” Jewish community, I am reminded how similar we can look and dress and speak and tell the same jokes.  But I see the flip-side:  how in those venues, in our “whiteness” and sameness, there’s the pretense.  There’s the masking of underlying insecurities.  There’s a vigilance when it comes to political allegiances.  We imagine ourselves as “liberal” and in the world; while at the same time our speaking points are narrowly circumscribed. 

There’s a cleavage, however.  The next generation is less sentimental and less forgiving when it comes to Israel; and it pays diminished attention to the Holocaust, which is inevitable as the event fades.  There’s a new way of writing and remembering our commitments.  All those trees we planted, all the money we gave to the Jewish National Fund (you remember putting money in those blue and white pushkes), it turns out that the forests covered a lot of crumbling villages we either didn’t know about – or didn’t want to include in the narrative.  The backstory didn’t make it into the Book of Life, so there may have to be a new edition – one in which there’s sympathy for others with editorial challenges.

The new edition of the Book of Life is a controversial affair.

Indeed, there’s the problematic language of genocide that got into the Black Lives Matter platform this summer – and it was unfortunate, because it’s a coded term – genocide – and one with a theoretical history in international law.  It’s understandable that as Jews who experienced the most technologically and immorally explicit instance of genocide in human history, we should recoil when the term is used against us. 

When we ally ourselves with others who have experienced injustice, and they take authorial liberties, it forces us to be not only good writers, but careful readers.  Close readers.  In this case, what we’re talking about might be thought of as an interlinear translation of the Book of Life, in which the reflections of Others are placed on the page, line by line.  And when we reflect honestly about what’s in two columns on the same page, our scrutiny directs itself to the $38 billion flowing from one so-called democratic society to another (that’s what the Obama administration just earmarked for Israel).  What’s more, we consider that the investment causes people in both places to fear eviction and to be compelled to live in narrow places, to suffer daily humiliation in the face of enforcers of the law armed to the teeth, to risk incarceration, brokenness and invisibility, to stave off inadequate sources of water and electricity and livelihood.  The new edition of the Book of Life juxtaposes this kind of violence and humiliation here in America and there in Israel – and yes, it’s true:  we as Jews are being judged as well as doing the judging, as we are involved in editing the story.

If you’re wondering, we’re not talking about places like Russia or Saudi Arabia or Iran or Sudan or the failed state Syria (or in many other places in the world), because we know that any attempt to publish a Book of Life in these places would be subject to censorship and, with the exception of Egypt, we here in America are not underwriting these regimes. 

The only real editing considerations that matter to us are those that pertain to societies that profess to be democratic, but who, at the same time, tolerate certain “documentary hypocrisies."

In this sense, writing the Book of Life requires us to pay attention to the erasures.  If we’re going to write the comprehensive story, if we write it with honesty and conviction, then we’re going to have to stop this business of leaving out what’s embarrassing or even incriminating – it may even include an acceptance of what has been won unfairly and for which there is no reparation – as long as we do whatever we can to get things right today (going forward) – to make things as fair and as equitable as possible.

A footnote to all of this:  Being good editors on Rosh Hashanah has nothing to do with ridding ourselves of defilement.  This act of dedicated writing – this new edition of the Book of Life – should require pride and joy and commitment to the Jewish people.  I recognize that there are some who cannot stand to be among their own, who seek out identification with Others as a way to overcome a blemish.  This amounts to another kind of erasure.


Interestingly, Lisa and I have a plan to travel to Colombia in a few months. This is because we think it’s important to go to places we have never been before, and we like to dig into the culture and the history of those places, like so many folks here tonight who have always inspired us to be inquisitive and curious.  You know that only a few hours ago, we heard the results coming in from the important referendum about the future of that country that are dismaying.  Anyone who knows anything at all about Colombia knows that it was until very recently a place where there was a decades-long torturous terrorist cyclical plague – pitting paramilitaries against the FARC.  It’s a place where over 200,000 people were abducted, erased; but things are quite a bit more hopeful now.  It fascinates me that wherever there’s a Book of Life, there’s been this problem of erasure.

And talk about ironies – one Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero in one of his books writes about this character who has disappeared.  He’s a hostage held deep in the jungle by the FARC, who, with great effort, smuggles a letter out to home, to the established leaders of his city, the ones who have known him over the years.  But in that letter written on a faded piece of paper he offers something in the way of a strange prayer.  He pleads with them not to rescue him – because they are the ones who will certainly have him killed!

It seems to me that sometimes it’s like that when we want to ask the hard questions, when we want to write a new book – with open eyes.  It’s a dangerous proposition to write the book differently, and people (even ones we have counted on until now) will raise their eyebrows.

But – see – it’s a Jewish project…. We’re old and we’re new! 

We say throughout these Days of Awe  Nee-zacher v’nee-katev.  We want to be fostering good memory and good writing.

Over the next year 5777, join with me in doing some powerful writing.  Aside from books written by the perfect tzaddikim and the perfect re’shaim, the Talmud tells us that the Book of Life is held open for the rest of these ten days, maybe considerably longer!  It’s a work “in progress”.  May you and I make the most of this opportunity.  And it’s an open-source possibility – we can write the text collaboratively, and with the help of our allies who want to make the world more just and truthful.  Let’s get after it together.  L’shana tova tikatevu!

Tue, February 20 2024 11 Adar I 5784