In the Margins: Imagining a ‘Book of Lives’

By Esther D. Kustanowitz

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
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I have always loved books. By the time I was 16 months old I had learned to name the letters of the alphabet from “Sesame Street.” By the time I was 3, my parents had instituted the Shabbat Book Program to satisfy my voracious appetite for books: Every Saturday morning I — and later my younger brothers — would wake up the proud owner of a new book. This program, which lasted into my teenage years, was like a mini-Chanukah every week. In my college days, I was just as enthusiastic.

So, when I was taught about the Book of Life, I embraced the imagery. It made perfect sense to such a book-centered child: In Heaven, there was this book. If inscribed for a good year, we would live in health and happiness; if we had sinned, God condemned us to a year of sickness, misery and death. Our repentance during the Days of Awe could alter a negative decree. I accepted this, assimilating it into my understanding of the season.

As I got older, I learned more, which bred more questions than answers. Each Sabbath, the words “da lifnei mi atah omed” blazed at me in gold from above the ark. “Know before whom you stand,” the letters implored. Easier said than done. For every prayer that attested to God’s role in our lives as protector and redeemer, I seemed to find an equal number of texts that invoked the image of God as Supreme Judge, who with a single scrawl from the Divine Pen could grant us life or condemn us to death.

The image of the Book of Life grew in my mind into something starkly terrifying. Being inscribed for a good year meant life. Being inscribed for a bad year meant death. I began to have my first difficulties toting this image of the Book of Life in my spiritual knapsack — it was weighing me down, becoming too tangible and making it harder to view it as metaphor. It reminded me of the books at funeral homes, wherein those who come to pay their respects record their names as testament that they cared about the deceased. It was supposed to be the Book of Life, and yet I had begun to associate the book with death alone.

In September 2001, I started to see the metaphorical tome’s pages filling in with indecipherable scrawls (apparently, God has poor penmanship) representing names of people whom I will never meet but whose faces haunt me still, like a bound collector’s-edition compendium of those “missing” and “have you seen…?” posters. Those flyers clung obstinately to telephone poles and littered the streets of New York City, even after hope had been relinquished, long after the people pictured in them had perished.

After the year of mourning for the victims of September 11 had passed, I returned to my image of the Book of Life again, desperate to make peace with it. Then, a spate of suicide bombings, having begun in 5762 and having crossed into 5763, conspired to sever my faith yet again. I remembered the words of Unetaneh Tokef, that on Rosh Hashana we are inscribed and on Yom Kippur we are sealed: “who will die in his appointed time and who will die before his appointed time….” In my mind, the slo-mo CNN loops began running, with towers burning, planes crashing, bombs exploding and people dying.

Then I remembered having learned that God knows the whole course of human events but still gives humankind the power of free will. Our choices, good or bad, even within the structure of predestination, can change the future. And our actions as a community are that much more powerful. Perhaps the same conceit holds true for the Book of Life. Our deeds may cause God to judge us in a certain manner, but even God’s decree may be altered by human action.

While this doesn’t explain why bad things happen to good people, it does strip the Book’s debit and credit columns of their all-encompassing power. People who die under tragic circumstances, be the causes natural or unnatural, have not necessarily been inscribed by God for a year of misery. People who follow the path of evil can negatively affect good inscriptions. And if this is true, then the inverse must also be true: We can become the restorers of life, not just through repentance for our own misdeeds right before the Days of Awe but by following the path of righteousness and using good to help others throughout the rest of our lives.

Yet another year has passed. With the gift of distance and reflection, I remember how we have mobilized in the past — as Jews, as New Yorkers, as Americans. This banding together proved yet again why we are urged not to depend on miracles but to go out and make those miracles happen. We embraced our wounded city and our sense of national pride and are in the process of building a stronger community. It is a process of slow and steady progress, not unlike repentance.

For synagogue-going Jews, the period of reflection and introspection is an opportunity to reassess our priorities, our intentions and our assumptions. Maybe when discussing the Book of Life, Sefer Hachayim, the book in question should not be translated as the “Book of Life.” Maybe it should be translated as the “Book of the Living” or the “Book of Lives” — a chronicle of the lives of all human beings, that is to say, human history — past, present and future.

I imagine each page, filled to the margins with our names, the writing filling every inch, one name nearly flowing into the other. Maybe by collecting our lives in a single anthology, the image teaches us that our fates are not just our own but are inexorably intertwined with the fates of others, in the community at large and throughout the world. We are not just the People of the Book; we are People of the Book of Lives. Together, we can carry the book, no matter how heavy it gets, and find comfort in the margins of its ever-expanding pages.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan.

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