Originally delivered as a derasha in Boca Raton Synagogue, Rosh Hashana 5781
Recently, an undisclosed customer of Israeli jewelry company Yvel reached out to its owner, Isaac Levy, with an unusual request. The clearly wealthy client ordered a special, custom-made Covid-19 mask but only if it met three criteria: it had to incorporate N99 filters, be completed by the end of the year, and it had to be the most expensive mask in the world.
Twenty-five of Yvel’s artisans went to work on a mask made of 18-karat white gold with 3,600 white and black diamonds. They produced a mask worth $1.5 million that weighs over half a pound.
זכרנו לחיים מלך חפץ בחיים וכתבנו בספר החיים למענך אלוקים חיים
Remember us for life, King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the book of the living, for your sake, living Hashem.
In this simple yet deeply moving sentence, we beseech Hashem to inscribe us in the book of life. Again, in the second addition to our Aseres Yemei Teshuva, מי כמוך אב הרחמים, we ask Hashem to remember us לחיים ברחמים, mercifully for life. In the third insertion, though we add a word to chaim – וכתב לחיים טובים כל בני בריותך, now we ask Hashem to inscribe us for a good life. And then again in the last insertion we reference בספר חיים...לחיים טובים ולשלום.
Why is good life mentioned only in the last two insertions and not the first two? Why not ask for חיים טובים, a good life, from the start?
The Vilna Gaon explains that the first three berachos of Shemoneh Esrei are about life in the World to Come. In the future, in the עולם האמת, the world of truth, the world of complete revelation, there is no good or bad, there is no distinction between life and a good life. By definition, life in the next world is good and so we don’t need to specify טובים it in our tefillah. However, says the Gaon, the last two insertions refer to our request for life in this world, in the here and now. In this world, which could go either way, we specifically want a good life so we ask for חיים טובים.
But I would like to offer a different suggestion, one that these past six months have taught us all. Perhaps the reason we begin by simply asking for חיים, for life, is because we cannot and must not take life itself for granted. Before we can ask for חיים טובים, for the wonderful and beautiful joys and pleasures of life, before we can dream, wish, fantasize, and hope for exactly what we want our life to include, it cannot and must not be lost on us how fragile, tenuous, and unpredictable life is altogether.
If last Rosh Hashana I would have stood up here and said, “Chevra, we need to daven hard, we need to dig deep and pray from the bottom of our hearts because I have a premonition, I fear in this coming year the entire globe will be struck by a plague, we will have to shut down the economy, the country, our shul, we will all wear masks, distance from one another, many won’t be able to leave their homes and many, way too many will lose loved ones almost overnight from this horrific plague,” it might have been my last speech. You would say, “Rabbi, talk about something real, something relevant, something that could actually happen.”
And yet in the last half of the past year, חיים טובים, the indulgencies and luxuries of life, have not been the priority. חיים, our very survival, our family’s safety, our community’s health and wellbeing, staying alive and keeping those we cherish healthy have consumed our thoughts and dictated all of our actions, policies, and practices.
The distinction between two categories – “essential” and “non-essential” – has always been part of living a Torah life. Remarkably, these words have dominated the world’s conversations this past half a year. Essential workers and businesses were allowed to operate even when non-essential ones were asked or ordered to lock down. We went out for essential items and activities, even when we were asked to remain at home and forego that which was unessential. People everywhere continue to struggle to determine what is essential and important to do or go to, and what is unessential and worth skipping in an effort to mitigate risk.
For almost seven months now we have been preparing for today, for coming before our Creator knowing the difference between חיים and חיים טובים, between essential and non-essential. Now don’t get me wrong, we miss the non-essential. The “normal” parts of our lives we took for granted—socializing, playdates, vacations, kiddushes, simcha dancing, travel, and so much more—were not only enjoyable and fun, these were important and significant parts of life. Yet, as badly as we crave their return, we have learned to live without them, at least for the time being. We have realigned our priorities, refocused our values, and we have come to appreciate the gift of חיים, even before we get to חיים טובים.
Before Corona most people were inclined to feel invincible, indomitable, that all would continue the way it was, that we could and should expect to wake up tomorrow, to experience next week, to fully live next year and to enjoy the next decade and beyond. And yet, an invisible and pernicious virus has taught us that nothing could or should be taken for granted, nothing, not our lives or anything in them, is predictable or certain. The default and expectation should not be forחיים טובים or even חיים at all. Each day we wake up, each moment we live is a gift from above.
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 225:1) rules based on the Gemara (Berachos 58b) that one who sees a friend after a year of not seeing him or her recites the beracha of ברוך מחיה המתים, Blessed is He Who revives the dead. The Maharsha wonders, just because you have been locked down, quarantined, distancing and haven’t seen others doesn’t mean they were dead and have been revived, so why does the beracha upon seeing a long-lost friend invoke literal resurrection? The Mishna Berura quotes the Maharsha’s answer. He explains that every year on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our lives hang in the balance, our future is not certain, it is not secure. If we emerge successfully, it is as if we have been recreated and so when you see someone you haven’t seen in over a year, after a Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have passed, you make a beracha acknowledging that Hashem has revived them for another year, granted them חיים.
With this in mind, firstly, we must not take life for granted. We cannot skip to asking for חיים טובים without first thinking about the gift of חיים. I was once talking to a mother in our community who has several significant challenges in her family. I asked her how she was doing or how was her day and her response has stayed with me ever since. She said, “Rabbi, any day which ends with the same head count in my home as it began is a good day, no matter what else is going on.” Let us pour out our hearts this morning to ask Hashem for the same head count in our homes at the end of each day, each month and each year as we had at the beginning.
This morning, on the anniversary of the creation of man, of first receiving life, let’s pause and be grateful to be alive and to pray that we and those we love merit long lives. Let’s take a moment to declare we know what is essential and it isn’t a $1.5 million mask, but it is our health, our family, a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, meaning, purpose and Torah and our lives.
Secondly, the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 32b) says that on Rosh Hashana Hashem sits on His throne and the books of life and death are open before Him. Why does He need a book of life, isn’t it enough to not be inscribed in the book of death? Perhaps we earn חיים, life, by simply not being inscribed in the book of death. But what kind of life? A life of loneliness and solitude, a life of lockdown and quarantine, a life of retreat, of fighting to survive? Or, a life of vibrancy, dynamism, a life of company, companionship and community, a life of activity and activism? Our Creator opens two books because we don’t just want to be inscribed not to die, we want to be given the chance to fully live, to live a good life, a life filled with joy, pleasure, nachas, companionship, and happiness.
We begin by asking for חיים, but we don’t hesitate to also ask for חיים טובים. My dear friends, this morning, let’s not be satisfied with just not dying, let’s aspire to live again, to sit in shiur together again, to hug our friends again, to hold our grandchildren again, to dance together again, to enjoy Shabbos and Yom Tov meals together again. These days are Yemei Ratzon, special days to pour out our hearts to daven, to plead. Let’s together, collectively storm the gates of Heaven and ask Hashem to not only spare us from being written in the book of death, but to inscribe us in the book of life, of good life.
And lastly, when we think about the difference between essential and non-essential, we can’t just think about how we define the things in our lives, but we must ask ourselves how others define us in their lives. Are we essential or non-essential? Do we matter to others, do we make a difference in their lives, do we prove ourselves essential to our family and friends, to our colleagues, to our community and most of all to Hashem?
The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches us, “כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם”, every one of us is obligated to say "The world was created for me”. How do we balance this with the famous declaration of Avraham Avinu, “אנכי עפר ואפר” (Bereishis 18:27) “I am but dust and ash”?
Rav Noach Weinberg z”l, the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, used to explain: We are not supposed to say the world was created for me in a self-centered, self-absorbed, narcissistic way. Rather, “The world was created for me” means it falls to me to take care of the world. I see myself as essential, I am prepared to step up, to serve and to be of service, to matter, to make a difference, to pursue my mission.
You can be essential by sharing love with those who desperately need it, you can prove essential by helping others or volunteering. You are essential when you make choices not based on comfort or convenience, rather what you can do for the community. You are essential when you consistently add your unique voice to davening and learning. You are essential not only if you donate your kidney, but also when you donate your time and your resources.
I recently read the story of a Satmar Chassid from Williamsburg whose mother, who is in her early seventies, was having trouble breathing. Her oxygen levels were not good and she was rushed to one of New York City’s major hospitals. She was subsequently put on a respirator as her condition worsened. For several weeks, she was in an induced coma and all her son could think was that please God she will awaken and what will she find, how startled will she be. She will be totally disoriented after weeks of being unconscious and no family will be there to comfort and support her. He asked if he could visit for just a half hour after she regained consciousness, but, as was the case with virtually everyone at the height of Covid in New York, his request was denied. Only essential personnel were allowed in the hospital, absolutely no non-essential visitors could enter.
He soon discovered that the hospital had a longstanding contract with a company that supplies personal nursing care. The man hired a private nurse to care for his mother but then he had an idea. He approached the owner of the company and asked to be admitted to his mother’s room under the auspices of the private nursing company. The owner thought he was crazy and told him it simply wasn’t possible; if he sent someone who didn’t have credentials, he could lose his license and his business. The son, this chassid, had another idea. He asked what would be necessary to acquire appropriate nursing credentials. It turns out, as a consequence of the severe nursing shortage caused by the pandemic, New York state had enacted a law creating an expedited procedure for certifying licensed practical nurses (LPNs). One needed to only take a series of online courses and pass a written exam.
This chassid happened to be a long-time Hatzolah volunteer and an emergency medical technician (EMT). So for three straight days he locked himself in a room and listened to the online courses for LPN certification. He then took the exam and passed with flying colors. Armed with certification, he persuaded the company to let him join their staff as a regular scheduled nurse for the night shift in his mother’s hospital room. When she came out of the induced coma, he was there. And during her remaining weeks in the hospital, because he refused to accept that he was non-essential and went to great lengths to be deemed essential, he was there to offer support, care, and love.
As we coronate Hashem today, let’s not take life for granted, let’s not be satisfied with not dying, but let’s truly live and let’s promise and prove that we are essential to the people around us and to our Father in Heaven.