“You are judge and prosecutor, litigant and witness, author, and sealer. You record and recount.” We recite these words again and again from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer throughout the High Holy Days. What does it mean to address a Divine author or the Creator as writer? Where does the Eternal’s pen stop and ours begin? What kind of writing is in the Eternal’s record and what does it reveal about us?
Kol Nidre 5772
Dr. Erica Brown, a Jewish educator, asks, if the Eternal writes a book of our deeds, what kind of book is it? Is it filled with technical details of all our actions or peppered with amusing anecdotes? Does God use graph paper and add up columns like an accountant? Maybe the Source of Life is a journalist striving for objectivity but naturally failing because of the need to balance justice and mercy? As we explore what it means for the Eternal to write, we reveal the extent to which we are partners in this writing process. If our story makes it into the Divine journal, then we determine our narrative and plot. If this is so, who does the writing…us or the Eternal?
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The Source of Life as writer is a metaphor present throughout the Tanakh. If we begin with creation, we know that God built the world with words, the words of Genesis. The Eternal speaks the world into being. From the outset, our Torah exalts words and immortalizes them. In Exodus, Moses, speaking to God about B’nai Yisrael says, “Forgive their sin, but if not, erase me from the record which you have written.” But Adonai replies, “He who has sinned against Me, him only will I erase from my record.”
Adonai keeps a record of who does good in Exodus. In Malachi, we read, “Those who revere Adonai have talked to one another. Adonai has heard it and noted it, and a scroll of memories has been written at God’s behest.” Here again, a written record preserves those who exalt the Eternal.
In Pirkei Avot, a minor tractate of the Talmud, the scholar Elisha ben Abuya compares the learning of a child, which is “ink on a clean paper,” with learning in old age, “ink on erased paper.” Even though the Eternal writes down both our past deeds and our future ones, our account can still be erased or altered. We are the writers but the Divine is our editor, handing back what we have written and challenging us to correct our mistakes. The record of judgment at one moment need not close the book on next year’s.
On the High Holy Days, we pray to be “Inscribed in the sefer of life.” To translate sefer merely as a book misses a nuance, even though that is how sefer is used in modern Hebrew. A book and a sefer differ. Not every book is a sefer. A book can just be dropped or placed in any position, but a sefer is holy. It must always to be set down right side up. If we drop a book, we may choose to pick it up or not, but a sefer, like a siddur, prayerbook, Tanakh, or Talmud is not only immediately picked up, but kissed and replaced to its rightful spot. A book can be discarded as trash, but a worn sefer is never discarded, or burnt, or shredded. It is to be buried. We are inscribed in a sefer, the most sacred of books.
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Tonight we gather for Kol Nidre. The haunting melody and words of Kol Nidre ask that we not be held liable for oaths made under duress or in anger. Kol Nidre renders these brash oaths null and void, so that we can atone for our real errors. Much of our personal teshuva centers around the ways words shape us. Like the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, we may enter a psychological inner sanctum for teshuva. In our hearts and minds lie the words for which we need to atone; the poisoned injurious words already spoken, the spiteful words thrust at a silent God, the withered words of lost hope. We no longer offer sacrifices at the altar in Jerusalem. Now we bring our words, a word offering to the One who creates with words.
Genesis teaches that the Eternal speaks the world into being. This applies to us as well. Words determine our reality—the nature of our relationships with others. The narration we create with our words actuates our outlook on the world. If I continually voice, for instance, I reinforce a perspective of thankfulness. One of the things that makes acts of writing or speaking compelling is that writing allows us to approach permanence. Our lives are ephemeral. Writing consoles by its immutability. We preserve our legacy for those who remain after us. We can heal past hurts, express love to those we cherish, and offer our blessings for them.
For me, writing letters has been a touchstone throughout my life. Everything from little notes that say “I’m thinking about you,” to love letters, but most often letters to people with whom face-to-face dialogue is harder. How many times have I written to a family member after a difficult conversation, after words uttered that I was not proud of, and through writing, found a better expression of myself. Even when times were most difficult with a parent, we continually wrote to each other, maintaining our connection through pen strokes.
Some of us would prefer to keep our lives unexpressed, our potential unexpressed. If we don’t write anything down, then we cannot be held accountable for our hopes and dreams or their absence. Or we might be terrified of not expressing ourselves well enough, of failing. But then what happens? We become weighed down by the burden of our unexpressed dreams. As writers we risk a leap of faith. We chance creating a story that may not come to pass. The haunting melody of Kol Nidre expresses this yearning and uncertainty. The first notes capture our impermanence, our heartbreak, our failures. But then come the rising notes. Precisely because of this impermanence, our souls reach to express themselves.
I would like to share a story about the power of writing and teshuva. Twenty-six years ago, a woman named Aba Gail’s youngest daughter Catherine was living with a friend, a young man named Eric, sharing an old farmhouse outside of Sacramento. Eric had a best friend named Douglas. Both Eric and Douglas were Vietnam vets. Each had gotten heavily involved with drugs while in Vietnam. Back in the states, Eric had managed to clean himself up. Douglas never could. Douglas experienced psychotic paranoid delusions. He came to believe that his friend Eric had stolen his power as a human being and the only way to survive was to kill Eric. Douglas went to Eric’s house. He killed Eric, and Catherine, too, simply because she happened to be in the house when he got there.
It was a horrible crime, a grisly, senseless double murder. There was no question of Douglas’ guilt. For eight years afterwards, Aba Gail was consumed by anger and rage. She screamed in the shower every day. She cried every time she was alone. When she was in her car, she would start to cry so hard she couldn’t see the road.
The sheriff’s department told her they were going to find the culprit, convict him, and execute him. Then, they assured her, she would have peace. She believed them. She felt she had to hurt someone for what had been done to her daughter. She thought that once she did, she would find relief from her agony.
Douglas was arrested, and then convicted. Still, eight years later, there was no solace for Aba Gail. She began to realize that there would be no peace for her once the state executed him either.
Finally, something turned in her. She realized she would never feel unity until she could forgive Douglas. She studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jewish teachings on forgiveness. She soaked everything up like a sponge. But her heart was still full of pain, rage, and violence. One of her friends told her her forgiveness would never be real until she verbalized it to Douglas. That only made Aba Gail furious. She stopped speaking to this friend for a while. “What do you mean, tell him? I don’t have to tell him. I know what I feel in my own heart [I owe him nothing.]”
Four years later she felt a mysterious turning in her heart. Twelve years after her daughter’s murder, Aba Gail heard a voice, an inner voice. Loudly and clearly it urged, “You must forgive him, and you must tell him you forgive him. You must speak it to him.
Aba Gail complied. Immediately, she sat down and wrote Douglas the following note: “Dear Douglas, The spirit of God in me sends a blessing to the spirit of God in you.” Then she put the letter in the mailbox. As soon as she did, she felt healed.
Not all of this happened unconsciously and unintentionally. True, she had embarked on a path toward forgiveness, but she had never said to herself, “I am full of pain, the anger is destroying me.” She had simply heard the voice, written her words, sent them out, and then immediately felt how overflowing with pain she had been in those twelve years since her daughter died. Her anger had almost destroyed her. However, she also felt the heroic effort her soul had made to let that go. It was at the moment she put the words to paper and then sent them away, that she was free.
Aba Gail realized that her inscription in the sefer must be one of teshuva. She wanted to be remembered for her goodness, for her compassion. She yearned for unity. Teshuva was her seal.
The path of teshuva, transformation, is long and arduous. We spend weeks and months peering into our hearts, feeling the hurt in our souls. Then Kol Nidre comes, and it is finally time to give voice to the thoughts and feelings that haunt us. As Rabbi Alan Lew captures, somewhere in the twenty-four hours of Yom Kippur, we speak these words in private, and we speak them in public. We speak in the shadow language of our own heart, or through the liturgy: our confession.  Kol Nidre calls us. “Let the words flow. Let the words, the speech, the writing heal us.”
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Each of us may partner with the Eternal as writers this Yom Kippur. How will we be inscribed? How do we want to be remembered? Maybe this year is your chance to write an ethical will to your children. Maybe this is the time to write that letter to a friend with whom ties have been strained. Maybe now you will sit down and write out your priorities. Perhaps the words you used hurt, lashon hara. Is your gossip or thoughtless speech ripe for editing? Do your actions reveal what takes precedence in your heart?
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We stand again this year and ask to be inscribed Ha’Sefer Hahayyim, the Book of Life. This year let us consider how we will narrate our past and our future. Perhaps we can echo the poet Yehudah Amichai’s aspiration: “I want once more to be written in the Book of Life, to be written anew every day until the writing hand hurts.” Our Book of Life, our sefer, will be distinguished by the world we create with our words. May the Eternal bless us as we bless one another with our sacred Hebrew…
“L’shana tova tikateivu …
May you & your loved ones be inscribed for a good year.”
 Arlene Agus, “Afterword: Meeting God’s Gaze” in Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, eds. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1997, p. 339.