Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 (September 20, 2017)


“L’chayyim!” – “To Life” – That’s what we Jews say whenever we raise a glass in celebration.

But with each Rosh Hashanah on the 1st of Tishri,

just as with each secular New Year on January 1st,

just as with each of our own birthdays whenever they happen to fall ---

we notice how quickly the years of our life fly by.

The older one gets, the more quickly time seems to pass. 

And once you reach an age when it’s likely that your life has at least reached its midpoint, you become more reflective about the overall contours of your life, about the overall narrative arc of your existence.

I know at least that that’s true for me.

I chuckle to think that, though I’m 56 years old now, I thought I had it all figured out 50 years ago. 

Fifty years ago, when I was only six years old, all of us in my first grade class in P.S. 100 in Brooklyn, New York were being introduced to the concept of poetry. Apparently, I liked the subject so much that I started telling people that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. 

I actually went ahead and scribbled out my own book of poems – which I imaginatively titled “David Steinberg’s Poetry Book.”  My parents kept that book in a cabinet in their house for many years though I’m not sure I can find it now.  But I still remember that one of the last poems in the collection was called “What Life Is.” 

And so, here is that poem, written by six-year-old David Steinberg in 1967:   


“What Life Is”


When you’re a kid, you go to school

and you learn spelling and math.

And then when you come home from school

your mom says “take a bath!”


When you grow up you’ll have a wife

 and your towels will say “hers” and “his”

What I have just told you,

is what I think life is.


Fifty years later, my understanding of “what life is” has evolved.

Especially the part about having a wife.

And I wonder about the rest of you:  What do you think life is?  What story do you tell yourself about yourself?  What are the narrative themes of your life?



At Rosh Hashanah we speak of being inscribed “bsefer hachayyim” / “in the book of Life”.

This image of a “Book of Life” comes from Masechet Rosh Hashanah, the Talmudic Tractate on Rosh Hashanah:

As we read in Masechet Rosh Hashanah page 16b:

א"ר כרוספדאי א"ר יוחנן שלשה ספרים נפתחין בר"ה אחד של רשעים גמורין ואחד של צדיקים גמורין ואחד של בינוניים. צדיקים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר לחיים. רשעים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר למיתה. בינוניים תלויין ועומדין מר"ה ועד יוה"כ. זכו נכתבין לחיים לא זכו נכתבין למיתה.

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah — one with the names of the completely wicked, one with the names of the completely righteous, and one with the names of those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked. The completely righteous: their verdict — life — is written down and sealed at once. Those neither completely righteous nor completely wicked: their verdict is suspended between New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement. If they are deemed to deserve it [by resolving to repent], they are inscribed for life; if [they fail to repent] and therefore deemed not to deserve life, they are inscribed for death.

You could give yourself an anxiety attack if you took this too literally.

But, of course, this is poetic, metaphorical language.   

Yet it’s still powerful poetry.  It’s meaningful metaphor.

What does this come to teach us?

I believe that what the idea of being inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah teaches us is that our actions have consequences. 

That how we live our lives affects the lives of others. 

I think the Hebrew language itself hints at these interconnections. 

In English, the word “Life” is a singular noun.  If we wanted to make it plural we would speak of “Lives” rather than “Life”

But in Hebrew, what do you notice about the word “chayyim?” Is it grammatically singular or is it grammatically plural?

Those of you who know even a little bit of Hebrew grammar will recognize that it's plural.  Thus, the word "chayyim," depending on the context, can be translated as either “life” or “lives”. 

What might we make of this?

I can think of three possibilities.

The first way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives” (plural) is that it implies that each person’s actions affect the lives of others.  No person is an island.  All Israel are responsible for one another.  All humanity are brothers and sisters.

In Genesis 4:10, after Cain kills his brother Abel, God challenges Cain: 

  מֶה עָשִׂיתָ; קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן-הָאֲדָמָה

(Mah asita; kol demey achikha tzo'akim eylay min ha'adamah)

“[...]What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground.

But just as “chayyim” is grammatically plural so is “demey achikha”. 

Idiomatically, "demey achikha" is generally translated as “the blood of your brother” but grammatically it’s plural so that the literal translation would be “the bloods of your brother”.

As the Talmud in Tractate Sanhdedrin page 37a explains: 

שכן מצינו בקין שהרג את אחיו שנאמר (בראשית ד) דמי אחיך צועקים אינו אומר דם אחיך אלא דמי אחיך דמו ודם זרעותיו

“And so we find with Cain that he killed his brother but the Torah says the “bloods of your brother ("demey achikha") cry out.  It doesn’t say "the blood of your brother" ("dam achikha")  . But rather “the bloods of your brother” ("demey achikha") -- [What does “thebloods” of your brother mean?] -- His blood and the blood of his descendants ("damo vedam zarotav")"

L’chayyim!/ To Lives!

Our actions in our own lives affect the lives of subsequent generations – including whether or not those subsequent generations will even be able to exist.

As it says just a few lines later on that same page of Talmud:

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered as if they had destroyed an entire world, and whoever preserves a single life is considered as if they had preserved an entire world.”

How we live our lives affects the lives of others.  The consequences may be subtle or they may be dramatic.

And so, on this Rosh Hashanah, we ask ourselves:  How have my deeds impacted others?  How have my deeds affected the world at large? 


A second way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives” (plural) is that it implies that there exists not just the life of this world (“olam hazeh”) but also the life of the world to come (“olam haba”). 

And so, the 13th century commentator Shlomo Ben Avraham Ibn Adret (a student of Nachmanides) commented that when the Talmud talks of being inscribed on Rosh Hashanah in “the Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”:

ואי נמי יש לפרש דחיים ומיתה דקאמר בעולם הבא קאמר

“one should understand that the ‘life’ and ‘death’ referred to here is [life and death] in the world to come, while in this world there are cases of a righteous person perishing though he or she performs righteous acts and of an evil person who lives a long life though he or she is evil. “ [1]

On the other hand, my colleague and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College classmate Rabbi Margot Stein, in the aftermath of the devastating loss of her college-aged son to cancer, wrote in a 2015 High Holiday sermon:  

I think I saw this on Facebook, that source of great spiritual wisdom: ‘We each have two lives. The second one begins, when we realize we have only one.’

Let this be that moment.  Let now be when you wake up to this one precious life.

Let this be when you choose to live like you mean it.”[2]

So, is there an olam haba?  A world to come?  And, if so, what is the nature of the life after this life? 

Jewish tradition includes many opinions on the subject.  I always told myself that I believed that there is an eternal life force that we are a part of both now and after our earthly deaths, but that our individual personalities and consciousnesses don’t survive our physical deaths.

But then last December when I was in synagogue in Tel Aviv on the morning of Shabbat Chanukah, we came to a verse in Hallel that I’ve sung many times in my life and that we’ve sung in this sanctuary every time we’ve sang the Hallel service, Psalm 115, verse 17. 

  לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ;    וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead cannot praise the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence.

And I had this sudden strong feeling, that brought me to tears, that I can’t possibly believe this claim of the Psalmist is true. 

  לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ;    וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead cannot praise the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence [??!!??]

No!  I don’t believe it!

My mother had died just six months earlier but sitting there I suddenly had this feeling that --- despite what the words of Psalm 115 said – that nevertheless my mother was still praising God in the next world just as she so often did in this world.

Lechayyim!/To lives! – The life of this world and the life of the world to come. 


Finally, a third way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives”(plural) is that it implies that an individual’s life is a collection of experiences not just one long, undifferentiated slog from the cradle to the grave.  Maybe my life is NOT a unified narrative.  Maybe, on the contrary, my LIFE--  is – are --- LIVES --- A collection of discrete moments that don’t have to add up into a coherent whole….

I used to think that we had to combine all the discrete moments of our lives into one logically coherent story.   I no longer am so sure that that is true. 

I remember just before my ordination from rabbinical school my academic advisor, Adina Newberg gave us this advice:  Surprise yourself.  Don’t limit yourself to your stereotype of yourself.  Don’t be a slave to routine.

On Rosh Hashanah we sing “Hayom Harat Olam”/ “Today the world is conceived”.  And in the daily Shacharit prayers throughout the year we chant “uvetuvo mechadesh bekhawl yom tamid ma’aseh vereysheet”/ “with divine goodness God renews each day, continually, the work of Creation.

So may it be with us –That we be inscribed in Sefer Chayyim/ A book not just of life but of lives. 

With each new day bringing new possibilities.  

With each sorrow in this life tempered by a faith in an eternal salvation. 

With each of our actions informed by our care for the web of connections in which we are tied to others.  

הרחמן, הוא יחדש עלינו את השנה הזאת לטובה ולברכה.

Harachaman, hu yechadesh aleynu et Hashanah hazot letovah veliverakha.

May the All-Merciful One, renew this year for us with goodness and blessing.




© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)


[1] Rashba on Rosh Hashanah 16b

 ואי נמי יש לפרש דחיים ומיתה דקאמר בעולם הבא קאמר, אבל בעולם הזה יש צדיק אובד בצדקו ויש רשע מאריך ברעתו

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-arthur-waskow/we-each-have-two-lives_b_8252184.html

Posted on September 25, 2017 .