Main idea: lessons from zochreinu lechayim, remember us for life, the basic add-on for the ten days of teshuvah, repentance
Shanah tovah! Welcome to our second night of Rosh Hashanah, led by Cantor Axelrod. I want to thank her for being with us, and for Cantor Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev for the wonderful service yesterday and for what I am sure will be a wonderful service tomorrow morning.
To say that life was hard this year is the understatement of the millennium. Living life showed itself to be not for the faint hearted. I won’t go onto describing every thing that was not easy because if I’d do so we would be here until Yom Kippur.
And precisely because of this I want to spend a few moments with a piece that we add in our prayers: “zochreinu lechayim” – remember us for life.
This addition to the prayers begins on RH and lasts until YK – on those ten days of teshuvah, ten days of returning to the best we can be, this addition accompanies us. It repeats four times the word “life” but there is no qualification for life: “remember us for life / oh King that desires life / and write us in the book of life / for Your sake, God of Life.
Let’s look closely to these words, because when we get to Yom Kippur they will be like Aleinu, one of our best friends. You know, there are so many unfamiliar prayers in the high holidays that when we get to Aleinu in the middle of the service is like we find a friend in a multitude. Zochreinu lechayim should become a good friend too.
The first thing I want to point out is that the word life is repeated 4 times in this prayer. Four is never a number that happens by accident – because it is a number of birth and renewal. We have 4 cups on Passover, which points to renewal and rebirth. We have 4 foremothers: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – all giving birth. Rosh Hashanah itself has 4 different names: Rosh Hashanah – the head of the year; Yom Truah – Day of the Truah sound; Yom Zikaron – Day of Remembering and Yom HaDin – Day of Judgment. God, the very essence of Life, has a name with 4 letters, yud, hey, vav and hey. So by repeating Life four times we are connecting with all those layers of meaning.
Now to the text itself: Remember us for life – Why are we saying remember us? First, is God not only compassionate, merciful, and patient, but…forgetful, too?
And second, why the plural? Why not remember me for life?
One of the explanations is that we are reinforcing our collective memory in this prayer, and reminding ourselves that we are all in this together. When discussing why one should keep mitzvot, the sages offer one scene: imagine yourself in a boat with all the people you know. And one of them is making a hole under his or her own seat. Of course everybody gets upset: why are you doing this? To which the person says: what is it to you all? I’m making a hole under my own seat!
So, by using the word “us”, in this moment in time when we as individuals are really thinking about how to be better, the tradition wants to remind us: you and I can only be better if we are aware of our togetherness in the world.
Becoming a better person is not an independent learning project. It is completely dependent on dealing with other people, and remembering that we are all in the same boat. We all share this one planet, and this one human family. I don’t think I need to remind you, but I will anyhow, that when the Torah opens it makes abundantly clear that we are all brothers and sisters, all created in the image of God, and all siblings to the rest of the natural world. Planet earth, in Jewish thought, is not our mother, it’s better than that, the earth is our sister! So we are all in this together, as this and most of the other prayers of the High Holidays will remind us. And also, we are here to learn from each other. That person that drives you crazy? Well, he or she might be the best teacher about your own reactions. We need each other to grow, even if sometimes growing is painful. We are dependent on our meshigases to push each other forward.
Now – can God forget? Why is this prayer asking God to remember?
The idea of remembering is everywhere in RH prayers. Memory is so powerful a theme that the day is called Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory, the memorial day. But differently than the other memorial days, we don’t remember the dead – we ask God to remember the living, and we try to remember our lives this past year.
But now think about the moments you remember: there is always an element of judgment, of comparison of the past and the present. And emotion, too. Dr. Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Because strong memories are always intertwined with feelings.
Now in our prayers of Rosh Hashanah we read verses about God remembering, they are called the zikhronot verses, the verses about memory. And if you read them closely, all the verses in context have to do with God taking action somehow: God remembers Noach and dries up the land, remembers Rachel and causes her to become pregnant, God remembers the covenant and takes us out of Egypt. So the idea of remembering, in terms of God, is much closer to actualizing God’s merciful side.
Just as we are expected to do teshuvah and return to our best selves, we remind God that God’s mercy is there, and please be merciful to us – and so we call God “oh King that desires life”.
We are living difficult times. There is no lack of bad news, violence, anger, war and sickness. Don’t we need remembering that God desires life? And not just life for us, individuals, but for all human beings?
And not just for human beings, but for all other forms of life in this planet? And not just for all other forms of life, but for the planet itself?
And write us in the Book of Life, the prayer continues. Now, that is powerful imagery right there. What is this book like, we wonder. Are we talking length of days, a long life, a book that never ends, or are we talking about quality of life, a life not just lived but fulfilled meaningfully? Are certain lives that we lost this year lesser because they ended or were painfully ended, or are they even larger because they ended how they did, and brought about an awakening with their end?
I had no idea who George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were before they were killed, and I am willing to bet that neither did you. And I will say it right now, I wish they were still alive.
Not only because they would be filling their lives with meaning, but also because it would mean that police would be less violent.
But their names are certainly written in the Book of Life, even if because we are infusing their deaths with meaning, by wanting a different world, by searching for ways to make this a more equitable, truthful, and just place.
So of course this prayer goes on to connect memory with writing. How could we have one without the other? Memory always has a side of judgment, and with action on the part of God. Maybe this year we will have the courage to remember and act as a collective, being written in the Book of a Life lived with integrity, meaning and justice.
The prayer closes with “For Your sake, oh living God” – what do we mean? Is God also interested in us, in our lives?
Most of us were trained, from childhood, to believe that God gets nothing out of this deal – a God that is all powerful, all knowing, everywhere, a God that needs nothing from us. But apparently, the prayer wants to remind us that there is something in it for God too.
What does God get out of the deal of creation? I really don’t know, but I have lots of opinions. The opinion I am holding closer to my heart this year – give me a few months and I will change my opinion – is that God gets to give us the opportunity of continue creation, gets to see us grow and change throughout our lives.
Only parents and teachers get this in a heart and soul level: there is nothing more awesome than seeing your child or your student rise up to the challenge, develop new abilities, become a mensch, a decent human being.
So we close by ask God to write us in, to ‘keep us in mind’ our struggles as we confront ourselves, our personal history, and as we take responsibility for what we’ve done (and haven’t done), for who we were and the effort to shape ourselves into the person we hope to be – because our struggle to become better and make this a better place is God’s, too.
This prayer brings up the Big Questions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Zochreinu lechayim – In what ways in the past year have you felt forgotten? Who in our community has been forgotten about, overlooked or not included?
Melech chafetz bachayim – In what ways do the mistakes you’ve made and have yet to fix, or steps you’ve taken and cannot walk back, lead you to feel like your life is being less than fully lived?
What wrongs can you fix that could make you feel more alive?
Vekotveinu besefer hachayim – What is the story you are writing in the book of your life? How meaningful is it?
Lemaancha Elohim Chayim – In what ways your Teshuvah, your return, is for God too?
Sometimes, in some conditions, we can despair of the answers. But despair is not an option. God believes in you, in your light and in your capability of stepping up to the plate. God has given you another day to live, regardless of your circumstances. How will you infuse that day with meaning?
I want to close with a story from Rabbi Israel Salanter. He went for a walk in the neighborhood one dark winter evening. Along the way, he saw a small house with a dim light in the window that glowed in the darkness. The light drew him to the house, and he entered it. In the faint light he saw a shoemaker fixing shoes in a hurry; hitting the hammer at full force.
The rabbi asked him: “Why are you working this late at night to repair shoes?” The man replied: “As long as the candle is burning there’s still time to work and repair.”
The Rabbi left the shoemaker’s home and went to back to his neighborhood walk. But as he was walking, he began reciting the shoemaker’s words first to himself and then aloud for everyone to hear: “Dear Jews: As long as the candle is burning, there’s still time to work and repair.”
So my friends, let’s continue to work and repair: the light is still burning.