General High Holidays Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Sign Me Up for the Good Life

Rosh Hashanah is coming up faster than I expected, just as it does every year. The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is a time of introspection and preparation. For me, it is a time of beginning to review the prayerbook and remind myself of the prayers we will recite. I begin to study them, and think about what they will mean to me this year. One phrase repeats itself, in a number of minor variations, throughout the liturgy: “Incribe us in the book of life.”

In the Avinu Malkeinu, (Our Father, Our King), we find it in this form: “Our Father, Our King, write us into the book of good life.” This leads me to ask. What do I mean by this? What does it mean to be inscribed in the book of good life?

I know what I don’t mean. I don’t intend that God simply make everything go well for me in the next year. I don’t mean that God should protect me from death over the next year. I don’t mean that I believe there to be any sort of physical book (or physical God, for that matter), and that the presence or absence of my name in it determines my future.

What I do mean, I think, is that it would be nice, if over the next year, I had some sense of what decisions I can make which will lead me to living a good life; a life full of meaning, a life full of joy. It is a plea that I be able to, with Divine providence, see the good in whatever should happen to me over the coming year. It is even the plea, at some deep, pre-rational level of my brain, that good things happen to me over the coming year.

I may not rationally believe in a “wish granting God,” but prayer isn’t always rational and doesn’t always have to be consistent with our theology.  Even if my prayer is incapable of being answered, just praying it may be enough. Being willing to put out there what I would really like, even with no real expectation of possible fulfillment, can be useful.  While talking to a friend about the car you’d really love to own, you don’t expect your friend to give you the car, but it can be nice to talk about it anyway.

So when I pray, “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim (inscribe us for blessing in the book of good life),” I’ll be pouring out my heart, hoping for the good in the coming year. And as always, I’ll be praying, fundamentally, not because I expect God to act on my behalf, but because it feels good to pray as though I do.