One of the key points of the machzor on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is Unesaneh Tokef followed by BeRosh Hashana yekoseivun BeYom Tzom Kippur yechoseimun. Tears flow as we contemplate whether we will be among those who will be written down for life or, chas vesholom, among those who will not survive the year. Some will die at their predestined time, others sooner. We are under no illusions that such things ‘never happen’ because we all know of people who have unexpectedly died of illnesses, in accidents or even at the hand of criminals or terrorists. We daven to be written in the Book of Life but there are no guarantees. However there is a way to ensure that we will be written down in the Book of Life? Do you want to discover the secret? Read on.
I must admit to having a particular interest in cats. I don’t own one but do see them regularly in the streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh. At any time of the day or night you’ll see one crossing the road, emerging from under a parked car or occasionally making an emergency exit from a trash bin after being surprised when someone tosses in a bag. What was the cat doing in there? Presumably looking for some discarded fish or some other edible item which would have kept it going until its next hunger pangs. All in all, cats do not enjoy a particularly intellectually stimulating or satisfying existence.
A dog doesn’t fare much better. If it is not looked after by some friendly human, it roams the streets, usually at the dead of night, looking for discarded bones. And if it gets reported, it might find itself caught by the municipal dog catcher who will take it out of our way to the nearest kennels to be disposed of.
The lives of cows, sheep and goats are much the same. They munch grass and provide us with milk, leather or wool but is this a life? At least cows can be happy that they don’t have to plow anymore but they probably never spoke to their bobbies and zeidies to realize their good fortune. If a person chances on a lion’s den, he might well live to tell the tale according to Yevomos (121a) because lions only go back to their den to sleep, waking when they feel hungry again to look for supper. So lions look for food, eat and sleep, look for food, eat and sleep and so on ad nauseam. Monkeys enjoy swinging from branch to branch –give them a banana and they are happy. But I don’t envy them. I don’t even envy their slightly more advanced cousins, the chimpanzee or gorilla. We see them in the zoo pacing their enclosures. In the wild, I’m told that they sleep about thirteen hours a day and eat for another six hours, after they searched and found some food. What a life! Nebuch for them.
Now let’s think about humans. Hashem gave us a neshomo as well as a body. Our body wants to do exactly the same as the animals – look for food, eat, look for other physical pleasures, enjoy them temporarily and go to sleep until the next day when the same program is repeated — look or work for food, enjoy eating and other physical pleasures and then go to sleep until the next day etc. etc. True, we have a neshomo and can choose to pursue spiritual and other worthwhile pursuits, but our physical urges are strong and it’s tempting to just surrender to them. The problem is that if we do so, our lives become as humdrum and meaningless as that of our animal cousins. Eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping in just a slightly more sophisticated form than that of animals. And at the end of the day our satisfaction with life will be less than that of animals because they are programmed to feel satisfied when they have had enough but we are always looking for even more tasty foods, even more enjoyable physical pleasures. If we would succeed, it would be only a halbe tzara but we don’t succeed; we are never satisfied. We quickly get used to whatever we have and look for more, leaving us dissatisfied. We are never satisfied because the neshama part of us is not interested in physical pleasures. It needs us to be alive, so we have to eat and sleep but it wants so much more. It wants a connection to its spiritual source. A pizza or hot dog just doesn’t achieve that. And forbidden pleasures take us even further from our spiritual source.
Chazal have a strong word for this kind of glorified animal existence, They call it death. “The wicked even during their lifetime are called dead.”(Medresh Tanchuma). The posuk (Yirmiya 2:14) spells it out. “You have deserted Me, your source of fresh water, for broken vessels which can’t even contain water.” A posuk in Tehilim is equally dismissive. “I said that you are gods and the sons of the Most High but you shall die as men do and fall like any prince.” (82:5-6) We could have lived a neshama-centered existence – connecting with Hashem, the source of life, but we lived a life of an overgrown monkey. How sad. What a waste.
The posuk spelled it out: “I have given you a choice – life or death, good or evil.” We have the option and mitzvah of clinging to Hashem (Devarim 10:20) — learning His Torah, keeping His mitzvos, walking in His ways. This is life in the true sense. This provides us with spiritual, meaningful and eternal satisfaction. “The righteous, even in death are called alive.”(Medresh Tanchuma ibid).
We look for inspiration to do teshuva before Yom Kippur. Isn’t it obvious? Do we want to live the life of cats, dogs and other animals whose concern extends no further than satisfying physical urges? Or do we want to live on a more elevated level, looking to Hashem and clinging to Him? Is it even a question? It’s a no-brainer.
Yes, we have the power to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. No matter how much time we will still be granted in this world, we can write ourselves in the Book of Life, living in the image of Hashem. As the posuk says, “You, who are clinging to the L-rd your G-d, are all alive today.” (Devarim 4:4).