The great metaphor of these Days of Awe, in the middle of which we now stand between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the book of life. ‘Write us in the book of life,’ we pray. The traditional greeting, Gmar Chatimah Tovah, ‘a good closing seal,’ expresses the hope that God will seal us in that vital book.
No less than eight times we add the word ‘life’ to our daily prayers, speaking of God ‘who loves life’ and ‘sustains life with lovingkindness.’ If, in the classic rabbinic phrase, we are ‘partners with God in creation’ then we too must be participants in that love and nurture of life. There is nothing more important at this juncture in the world’s development, with its economic and ecological crises. Both these words derive from the Greek oikos, home: the question, then, is what we can do to make our communal, national, and earthly home kinder, more sustaining and sustainable, and more full of loving kindness.
These urgent tasks draw on our time and money, mind, imagination and heart. This year above all we need to dedicate ourselves in whatever ways we best can to supporting the most destitute and endangered among our people and across our societies. We need to share in making this a life-giving earth and put a break on whatever in our own habits is contributing to the earth’s destruction.
‘All life shall acknowledge you,’ we say every day. All existence, human, animal and the life of all nature, is precious; it is all part of a fragile, interdependent whole. Our final service on Yom Kippur concludes with a prayer, addressed more to ourselves than to God: ‘May we cease from exploitation,’ ‘May I never sin again.’
This week we’ve lost someone who was a great campaigner for the most vulnerable lives, Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton who saved hundreds of children from Nazi Europe. Inheriting her father’s passion, modesty and determination to do whatever lay in his power to help, she too fought for refugees, particularly children, especially those who dared their terrible journeys of escape from persecution all on their own. May Barbara find rest in the presence of God and may we all be heirs to her values.
It’s all very well to speak in praise of life, but life is often far from easy. It frequently hurts and most of us bear sore wounds. The very focus on life draws us to think of those who are no longer with us. There they are, their picture on the shelf, their shadow still next to us, but their wit, laughter, affection and irritating habits all gone. May their love still sustain us, their foibles still amuse us and their voice still speak in our hearts.
Every day in our prayers and many times during Yom Kippur we say Mah anu? Meh chayeinu? What are we? To what does our life amount? But the answer is never ‘nothing; don’t bother.’ Life is our opportunity to make the most of the gifts with which we are endowed: the capacity for wonder, joy, creativity, empathy, compassion, dedication and endurance. An anonymous poet imagines what death would tell us if it could speak: it does not speak about itself but rather says
Think of life;
Think of the privilege of life;
Think of how great a thing life may be made.
May this be a year in which we do our utmost to work alongside each other, all faiths and all nations, as partners with God in appreciating and sustaining life with loving kindness.