Sermon: The Book of Life

2021 September 19
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

In the Babylonian Talmud, it says this about the Jewish High Holidays: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. One for the completely evil, one for the completely righteous, and one for everyone in between. The completely righteous are written and sealed in the Book of Life immediately. The completely evil are written and sealed in the Book of Death immediately. Those in between stand suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur.” It’s like some get a green light, some get a red light, and some get a yellow light. Let’s take a quick poll and see how this breaks down here: Raise your hand if you are in the completely evil category. Raise your hand if you are in the completely righteous category. Anybody in between, in the yellow light zone?


I think we all know that everyone in the world is somewhere in between and they also undoubtedly knew this back in the 6th century when the Talmud was written. But they used this concept as a teaching tool to help people seize the opportunity of the High Holidays to deal with their stuff, return to their core, and open their hearts toward the Book of Life. Ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to get right with God, with our neighbor, with our conscience, with the earth. Ten days to say what we need to say to our loved ones because you never know when it might be too late. Could we do this inner work on a different ten days, later in the year? Sure. But would we? Probably not. And so we do a mini version of this every year here at First U around the time of the High Holidays.


On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, if you venture down to the waterfront in New York there’s a good chance that you’ll find dozens of Jews praying and throwing stuff into the water. This is a tradition called Tashlich where you bring a few pieces of bread or twigs or acorns to a river, and throw them into the water, casting your sins away with each piece. It’s part of the spiritual journey of those ten days. It’s different from what we’re going to do this afternoon with our holy water – and I hope you’ll all join me as we give some of our holy water back to the river. But in the case of Tashlich, it’s asking the river to hold your pain, to absorb your regrets, and to help release you from your negative patterns. And you watch the objects representing your mistakes float away downstream.


So this year a friend of mine went with her daughter and her dog (named Nancy Wheeler) down to the river for Tashlich. Her daughter asked what the dog’s sins were. From what mistakes did Nancy Wheeler need to be released? And so her mother composed an Al Chet prayer – a confession like the one we did together earlier – for the dog. It goes like this:


-For the sin of barking too much.

-For the sin of eating chocolate and having to be rushed to the hospital.

-For the sin of turning the garbage over and eating everything in it.

-For the sin of ruining the couch.

-For the sin of being annoyingly needy.

-For the sin of being aggressive with her family even though we are the people who love her most in the world, and take care of her and give her everything.

-For the sin of lying down in mud puddles.


Setting aside the question of whether it’s even possible for a dog to sin, you’ll notice that these sins are all about ways that Nancy Wheeler has made trouble for my friend and her family. They are sins from the perspective of the wronged, not from the perspective of the wrongdoer. And this raises an important question: who gets to decide if someone has sinned? When, if ever, do you get to say that someone else has sinned? Do you have to be personally harmed by it or can you just witness an act that harms others? Who gets to name it and say, “this is wrong?” Who gets to pass judgment on whom?


This is a crackling, fiery, live issue in our political and social worlds today. Because, on one hand, “judging thy neighbor” is itself a cardinal sin for liberals. Some of us have had painful experiences being judged for who we are or what we do or whom we love. We yearn to live in a judgement-free zone. On the other hand, wrongdoing by its very nature usually affects someone else. We have a stake in what others do. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how desperately interconnected we are. We’ve experienced it. We’ve learned that we have a stake in whether other people wear masks or get vaccinated. What other people do matters to our lives. It matters to the lives of those we’ll never meet and those who don’t have the power to protect themselves. And that matters spiritually and ethically. And so the arguments about personal freedom versus collective responsibility rage on and on.


The abomination that is the new anti-abortion law in Texas is a fascinating case study on this topic. And let me be perfectly clear: Let nothing that I am about to say suggest that I find this law anything but an abomination. But. And. It is a powerful concept that any random hair dresser can sue a Lyft driver for transporting someone to get an abortion. In traditional legal terms, that hairdresser would have no “standing” to sue because she’s not personally harmed by the Lyft driver’s act. But with this new concept, she can sue because she witnesses the Lyft driver participating in what she sees as a sin against an unborn child.


Again, I think this is a terrible idea when it comes to abortion, but let’s play it out for a minute. What if this concept were expanded to other areas of life? What if we assumed that we all have standing when we see injustice in our world regardless of whether we are personally harmed? What if New York State criminalized the burning of fossil fuels? And the hair dresser could sue the Lyft driver, not for where he was taking his passenger, but just for driving the Lyft!? If we treated the climate emergency with the urgency that it deserves, this wouldn’t seem so crazy. We all have standing when it comes to protecting the web of life on this earth. We all have standing. And talk about saving unborn children!


Now, this is not going to happen in New York State, nor should it. Among other reasons, I mean, poor Lyft driver! But I do think that we need to engage in this kind of thinking, imagine boldly, and not be so careful and polite about it all. We have to do whatever it takes, however dramatic, to change course. We have the cosmic equivalent of ten days right now to grapple with our massive collective wrongs and unskillful living. Ten days to do the work of transformation. For now, our fate hangs in the balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These days will determine whether our species and many other species will be written into the Book of Life. Could it be a different ten days, sometime later? No. It has to be now.


In the 1984 movie “Starman” an alien comes down to earth and learns how to drive by watching humans. When he almost gets into a car accident by speeding through a yellow light, his human friend yells at him. “I thought you said you had watched me! You said you knew what you were doing!” He said, “I did watch you. Green light, go. Red light, stop. Yellow light, go very, very fast.” We’re in the yellow light zone – not all evil, not all righteous, but in-between and needing to go really, really fast. In reality, we need to go really, really fast in our public work and really slow in our spiritual and communal work.


Publicly we can go fast by advocating for policies and laws that will nourish the health of our communities. And, yes, we have standing to call out the sins of others, especially corporations and those in power. On Friday Extinction Rebellion produced a series of actions across the city, blocking the big banks that fund fossil fuels. They had huge signs that essentially recited the Al Cheit prayer on behalf of the corporation like my friend did on behalf of her dog. “For the sin of intentionally obscuring the science on climate change. For the sin of continuing to invest in oil and gas even after you knew…” They rolled a giant boat into the intersection in front of JP Morgan-Chase corporate headquarters and 14 people handcuffed themselves to the boat. Some of the people were elderly and sat in lawn chairs. One said, “I have a two-year-old grandson. How could I not be here?”


There’s also another dimension of the work we need to do during these proverbial ten days of the yellow light. It is the more private process; the more communal process. It’s a process of slowing down. Because of course, in most cases, that’s exactly what’s needed when you see a yellow light. Slow down and even stop. And in this process there just happens to be a wonderful resource at our disposal right now. On the Jewish calendar, the new year that just started on Rosh Hashanah happens to be the Shmita year. I preached about this in the spring. Shmita is the year every seven years when we release everything. Let the earth rest. Do not plant anything, work the land, or harvest anything to sell it for money. Eat the volunteer crops that grow, but allow everyone else to as well – the poor and even wild animals. You don’t own the land. Could we really not plant or harvest anything for a whole year? Maybe not. But could we rotate crops so that each field gets to rest instead of pouring more fertilizers into depleted soil? Probably. If we lived and ate differently. If we slowed down.


In the Shmita year all debts are forgiven. The literal meaning here is about forgiving monetary debts. But I wonder if it could also mean emotional debts. Could we seek to really forgive this year? Could we make that a special practice, after the people in our lives have been pushed to their limits in the last eighteen months? We have all been under stress, some even trauma, and many of us have not been at our best. We may have lashed out; we may have said things we didn’t mean. Our loved ones may have as well. And so maybe the accounting never has to happen after all. Maybe we can erase the ledger book where we’ve kept track of debts and start to forgive instead. Maybe we can start to forgive ourselves.


Shmita is about slowing down at the yellow light; cutting the earth some slack, cutting each other some slack and cutting ourselves some slack. What would it feel like to release our claim on the land and our claims on one another? To just let go. Release. Shmita means release. If you want to explore this together, we’ll be starting a Shmita project for the year – part support group, part spiritual laboratory, part think tank. How can we make best use of these cosmic ten days when our fate hangs in the balance? I hope you’ll join us. We’ll have details in the next e-news.


When I did Tashlich this year, and I threw my twigs into the Hudson, I was slightly dismayed to notice that they kind of didn’t go anywhere. Because the Hudson River is not a river but a tidal estuary, salt water from the ocean flows upstream way into upstate New York. So my sins just floated there disturbingly ambivalent about which way to go. But then, this is perfect. It’s not realistic that I or anybody else will instantly change – instantly be a whole new person. It’s not realistic to think that our stuck places and negative patterns will be whisked away just like that. But I have faith that if we set our intention prayerfully as people, as a community, and as a world, if we set our intention and work to release all the constriction, all that’s holding us back, in time the river will win and it will all wash out to the sea. And we and our future generations will be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

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