Blogging Ellul: The books of life and death

Talmud Rosh HaShanah 16b
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף טז עמוד ב
אמר רבי כרוספדאי אמר רבי יוחנן: שלשה ספרים נפתחין בראש השנה, אחד של רשעים גמורין, ואחד של צדיקים גמורין, ואחד של בינוניים. צדיקים גמורין - נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר לחיים, רשעים גמורין - נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר למיתה, בינוניים - תלויין ועומדין מראש השנה ועד יום הכפורים. זכו - נכתבין לחיים, לא זכו - נכתבין למיתה. אמר רבי אבין: מאי קרא - +תהלים סט+ ימחו מספר חיים ועם צדיקים אל יכתבו, ימחו מספר - זה ספרן של רשעים גמורין, חיים - זה ספרן של צדיקים, ועם צדיקים אל יכתבו - זה ספרן של בינוניים. רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר מהכא: +שמות לב+ ואם אין מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת, מחני נא - זה ספרן של רשעים, מספרך - זה ספרן של צדיקים, אשר כתבת - זה ספרן של בינוניים.
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death. Said R. Abin, What text tells us this? — [Psalm 69] ‘Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous’. ‘Let them be blotted out from the book’ — this refers to the book of the wicked. ‘Of the living’ — this is the book of the righteous. ‘And not be written with the righteous’ — this is the book of the intermediate. R. Nahman b. Isaac derives it from here: [Exodus 32] And if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written, ‘Blot me, I pray You’ — this is the book of the wicked. ‘Out of Your book’ — this is the book of the righteous. ‘Which You have written’ — this is the book of the intermediate.
I have struggled for a long time with this idea of a book of life and death in which we are all recorded. The way it always struck me was that if you were written in the book of life, you had been granted another year, and if you passed away, you had been written into the book of death at the previous Rosh Hashanah. This made the death of the young seem even more unimaginably cruel, and I found myself more and more alienated from this sort of liturgy. Of course I could try to not be so literal (as I do in so many other things!) Perhaps this is a metaphorical death of parts of myself if I do not change negative behaviours, or an enlivening of the real me if I do make the necessary changes. In this sense this text is a reminder first of all that the majority of us will always be struggling to get the balance right between being the best version of ourselves and answering our appetites and more destructive instincts, and it is also a metaphor for the life changing potential of changing -and of not changing.
Two of my favourite reflections on these motifs come from Rabbi Jill Hammer, here and Rabbi Rena Blumenthal here (p.7 of 'Yom Kippur Readings' Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins).
May you be able to write a book that you are happy to read in the coming year.


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