The Book of Life
The Chief Rabbi’s Rosh HaShana message as published in the UOS Jewish Tradition publication.
Life is our most precious gift from G-d. At this time of year as we pray to G-d to be given another year of life, to be written into the “Book of Life”, we need to appreciate the value of every moment that G-d has given us to live on this earth.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, was one of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders of the Jewish world until his passing in 1933. In those early years of the twentieth century, many Jews were leaving Europe to live in the United States of America. The story is told that the Chofetz Chaim asked someone who had just returned from a visit to tell him something about America. The man answered that in America, they say, “Time is Money”, the Chofetz Chaim’s rejoinder was that “Time is Life”. Every second and minute that passes does so forever and can never be retrieved, and is part of the limited gift of life that G-d has given us. Judaism teaches us to appreciate every precious moment of life by, for example, saying blessings of thanks and gratitude to G-d for simple pleasures, such as eating a fruit or wearing special new clothes. The Talmud says that we must gives thanks to G-d for every breath of air we take.
But Judaism teaches that life is not only about living in this world. G-d has placed within us an immortal soul that lives on in the world-to-come. Pirkei Avot (6:7) says, “Great is Torah for it gives life to those who do it, both in This World and the World to Come.” The Torah shows us the path of life. It is called “a tree of life for those who grasp it” and shows us how to live and be truly alive in this world and the next.
It also shows us how to ensure the vitality and endurance of the Jewish People. You often hear debates about how to ensure Jewish continuity. History has proven that only when Jews are connected to Torah is there a sustainable Jewish future. The Talmud (Avodah Zara 3b) says that the Jew without Torah is a fish out of water and cannot survive. Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, explains the analogy: a fish on dry land flips and flops so vigorously that an ignorant observer may think that it is alive rather than in its death throes. So too people often are mistaken when they think that there is a Jewish future without Torah. The fish out of water analogy was used by the great sage of Talmud, Rabbi Akiva during the Roman oppression when it was forbidden to study or teach Torah. He defied the decree, putting his life at risk, and was advised not to do so – advice which he rejected comparing it to a fox warning a fish of fishermen’s nets downstream, and advising them to avoid being captured by leaving the water. Rabbi Akiva was arguing that we are the fish and the Torah is our water and that without it there would be no Jewish People.
As we the South African Jewish community prepare for the new year, let us do so acutely aware that the sure path to a vibrant and eternal future, as individuals and as a community, lies in our loyalty to Torah. As we say in the evening prayers: “For it [the Torah] is our life and the length of our days”.
My wife, Gina and I wish you G-d’s blessing for a good and sweet year, and may we all together be inscribed in the Book of Life.