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The Choice Is Yours

By Rabbi Benjy Epstein Ph.D.

A friend recently gave me a book titled “This is Real and you are completely unprepared”. It’s a book about using Elul, Rosh Hashana, the Aseres Yimei Teshuva, and Yom Kippur as a meditation for personal transformation. I keep returning to the title. This is REAL and you are completely unprepared. 

This sentiment might be something we are all consciously or unconsciously struggling with as we approach this most auspicious time. I know I am. This is REAL and you are completely unprepared. 

The irony is, can one ever be prepared for the majesty and grandeur of coronating Hashem as king? Can there ever be “enough” preparation for the soul searching and transformation of Teshuva? Can we ever understand and internalize the sublime otherworldly bliss and joy of Yom Kippur? Even if a person were to spend the entire month of Elul mindful and conscious of the impending days, how realistic is it for a mortal being to approach an immortal and unfathomable God? To successfully plea for his grace and benevolence for another year? This is REAL and you are completely unprepared. 

When contemplating our predicament during this month, the accompanying thoughts and feelings (said but more likely unsaid) might be, ‘why even bother’? If you know you will never get “there”, why even try? The more insidious way this mindset may present itself is the subtle wish that we could just click the fast-forward button and be done with this entire period altogether and get back to our regularly scheduled programming. (Yes, I have been guilty on numerous occasions of this.) Yet intuitively, we know that we can’t be wishing our precious life away, let alone these holy days which Hashem gifted us. So what exactly are we to do? This is REAL and you are completely unprepared. 

“Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one for complete resha’im, one for complete tzaddikim, and one for beinonim. Complete tzaddikim are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, complete resha’im are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and beinonim (intermediaries) remain suspended..” (Rosh Hashanah 16b) 

The image of these “books” has been burnt into our collective memory and is one of the more visceral images we can muster when thinking about the impending day of judgment. Pause for a moment and see what sort of emotional reaction is elicited when you bring the image of these open books into your mind’s eye. Excitement? Fear? Longing? Dread? Every person in the world is waiting to have their name inscribed in one of these books. But which will it be? Can we ever really know in which book our judgment will place us? This is REAL and you are completely unprepared.  

Perhaps we must do a complete 180-degree shift in how we approach these books and, in doing so, change how we approach this entire period of the year. Spoiler Alert! There are no books, ink, or paper. More precisely, we need to move away from the more elementary way of viewing these books as physical entities and instead internalize what they represent. Chazal are inculcating within us that we have the renewed capacity to choose in which book we want our lives inscribed in. The Avodas Yisrael quoting from his teacher the Maggid of Mezritch teaches that to be inscribed in the book of life is, in fact, a process, an inscription being made in one’s own mind. Our names inscribed on Rosh Hashana in the heavenly tribunal occurs via our thought process. We alone determine our judgment through our perspective and attitude. “Benjy, wait a second. We get to decide which book we want to be written in!?! That seems preposterous! Of course, anyone and everyone would want to be written in the book of life!”

To be inscribed in the book of life, we simply (but not so simply) need to evaluate what are the priorities in our lives. For example, if someone were to ask us our address, how our favorite sports team was doing, or our cell phone number, we’d be able to answer pretty quickly, being that these things are at the forefront of our minds. They are things we refer to constantly. But what if someone were to ask us about the condition of our relationship to our higher power? How about accounting for the state of our neshama? Are we placing the honor of Hashem at the forefront of our lives, or do we live from a limited egoic view of priorities? The answer to these questions might not be as forthcoming as our dream vacation destination. 

This is precisely the entire process of the days of Elul. Where do our priorities lie? What is the number ONE of our lives? If it’s increasing honor to Hashem and his people, well, you’ve inscribed yourself in the book of life. If these thoughts have never even crossed your mind, then according to our mesorah, this simply can’t be called life. And if you are like most of us vacillating between Hashem’s will and your own, then the process of Teshuva is extended through Yom Kippur. This is REAL and you are completely unprepared. 

Suddenly we can begin to focus on the real work of this time. To clarify what it is we truly desire. Even if we don’t always manage to actualize our most authentic deepest desires, and even if we regress to some of our unskillful behavior, the primary motive and desire to align our will with Hashem’s is the ultimate factor deciding our present and our future.

There is a unique haunting and beautiful Chabad niggun sung during this time which accompanies the words Avinu Malkeinu Ain Lanu Melech- Our Father our King, we have no other king, there is no other king. Ele Atah. Only You. During the recitation of this soul-stirring song, the phrase ‘we have no other king’ is repeated numerous times until the resolution of the words ela atah- Only You. 

This format, the repetition, and the pregnant pause are all intentional. These stylistic components crystalize exactly what we are able and, more precisely, empowered to do during this time of year. Our choices will no longer be of inertia, coercion, or because it was dictated to us. Our choice of Hashem as king of our lives is made willingly and through no act other than our own deepest volition. Freely given and chosen. You are MY king. I choose You and all that this choice entails. And to be so clear about this choice (at least as clear as who my favorite player on the Miami Dolphins is, but hopefully so much clearer.) Ela Atah. Only You. That becomes where we inscribe our names, in the book of everlasting life.

So while it is true this is real, what is required during this time is an honest soul searching to access our innate desire to connect to and crown Hashem king. And with this knowledge, you no longer have to feel as if you are completely unprepared. THIS IS REAL AND WITH PATIENCE. INTROSPECTION AND GRACE, WE CAN BE READY!

(Based on the teachings of R’ Avraham Tzvi Kluger Shlita)

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