God’s Book

We just celebrated/observed Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year— and tomorrow is Yom Kippur. This was one of those years when the Rosh Hashana holiday fell on Thursday and Friday, and in the days when I didn’t do any “work” on the holiday or on Saturday, these three-day jamborees were particularly wearing. Three solid days of running around, standing in the synagogue, meal after meal after meal–a trip to the river for the Tashlich ceremony for good measure, and enough sermonizing to turn a rabbi hoarse. This year, I spent it in the pleasurable company of the kids at a synagogue on the Upper West Side–for some reason, the rabbi felt it was important for us to know that the synagogue was being sued by someone who didn’t like the way a cemetery was being maintained. (I guess they no longer make a point of telling rabbinic students never to read a sermon from a paper.)

This period of the Jewish calendar has always meant something special to me, but for a reason that might surprise you: It is the holiday that places a lot of emphasis on books. (Then again, why should that surprise you?) People greet each other with, “May you be inscribed for a good year in the book of life,” and there are many references to God writing our fate and recording His judgement for the coming year in a book. I’d often wondered, where does all this “book talk” come from? Well, it comes from the Bible—from two verses in Exodus that I have always found strange and intrigung. I’ll always remember these verses, because they were the reason I got smacked in the head by Rabbi Goodman when I was nine years old.

I went to a parochial school (a yeshiva) that was modeled on the old Lithuanian paradigm: the language of instruction was Yiddish and the religious teachers hit us when we misbehaved. I was a pretty good (or at least obedient) student, so I rarely got hit. In fact, you could count the number of times I was hit on the fingers of one hand—which means I got hit a total of five times in the eight years I went there. Each time I was smacked, it was for blurting out something so outrageous, so borderline blasphemous, that the Rabbi hit me almost as a knee-jerk reaction. This was the time Rabbi Goodman let me have it.

It’s the part of Exodus just after Moses has smashed the Tablets when he comes down to find the Children of Israel have worshipped a Golden Calf. God, understandably upset, threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel and start again with Moses (promoting him to Patriarch status, as it were). Moses pleads their case before God: Exodus 32:32. “And now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin [then well and good;] but if not, blot me out from Thy book which You have writen.” I remember sitting in Rabbi Goodman’s class with about 35 other kids; we would read a few verses of the Bible in Hebrew and then translate them into Yiddish, and then we’d do the same with the Rashi commentary on those verses at the bottom of the page. On the day we reached this portion, it was my turn to read.

After reading the verse aloud, I translated it (again, into Yiddish), and then, without thinking, I looked up and muttered audibly, “‘Book?’ What book? Who said anything about a book?” I looked up at Rabbi Goodman and he looked at me.

“What do you mean, ‘what book?’ This book—the Torah.”

“You mean the very book we’re reading right now?”

“Of couse. Why not?”

“Well, because Moses is saying these words. Did he write them down as he said them—like dictation?”

Rabbi Goodman thought a moment. “No, Moses wrote it down later.”

“Right,” I said, “because at this point, all that had been written down was the Tablets with the Ten Commandments. So what book is Moses talking about? The book that he’s going to write? But if God destroys the Children of Israel and there’s not going to be any book, is there?”

“He’s not talking about the Torah,” Rabbi Goodman said, thoughtfully. “He’s talking about another book—a book that God keeps on High in which He records who will live and who will die in the coming year, just as we say on Rosh Hashanah when we greet people with, ‘May you be inscribed in the Book of Life’.”

“Ah, so Moses doesn’t mean literally a book—a physical book with pages and binding and ink. I mean, he’s just speaking figuratively, right? It’s just a manner of speaking.”

“That’s right,” Rabbi Goodman said, but now he was a bit hesitant.

“In that case,” I continued, “I have a real problem with the next verse (verse 33): “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me, I will erase him from my book’.”

“Yes. So what’s the problem?”

“You mean God uses the same figure of speech that Moses just used? He adopted the same colloquialism because Moses just used it? Is that what we’re saying? It’s as if the conversation went like this: Moses says, ‘Erase me from your book,’ and God thinks ‘Book? What book,’ and then says, ‘Anyone who has sinned, I will erase him…er…from my, er, book’.”

At this point Rabbi Goodman was peering intently at the Bible in front of him, taking this all in. He didn’t seem angered or even annoyed by any of this, and I was enjoying my primitive analyzing of the text instead of just the routine reciting of the text and the translation.

“And besides, isn’t there something missing in Verse 32?” I continued. “Moses says, ‘If you will forgive their sin…But if not, erase me from Your book.’ The part about what will happen if God forgives them is missing.”

“Well, the commentary of Rashi explains this,” Rabbi Goodman said, “He says that the ‘fine and good’ is understood.”

“‘Understood?’ ‘Understood!?’ I mean, what are we to imagine, that Moses made a motion with his hands to indicate that if the people are forgiven, then it’s good?” and I made a fine-and-good motion. (Today I guess we’d use a “thumbs-up” sign; I wonder what they used back then.) “It really seems that something is missing here–in fact the key words and the main idea of the text are missing. Rabbi, this verse seems to me to be very…very strange.”

Now, recall that the entire conversation had been taking place in Yiddish. And at the end of that last sentence, I used a common Yiddish word for “strange”—modneh. But modneh has the connotation of bizarre, screwy, unhinged—even disreputable and weird. So as soon as I said that—perhaps I was a bit proud of myself for making these observations—Rabbi Goodman jumped to his feet and hurried down the aisle to my seat and gave me a sharp smack in the back of my head. “Nothing in the Torah is ever ‘modneh’, Rabinowitz,” he said angrily. Then he returned to his desk and called the name of the boy sitting behind me and told him to continue reading.

At lunch that day, a few of us talked about what happened, trying to figure out what I had done to earn that smack. We were stumped. “Well,” said one classmate, “At least he didn’t make you come up to the desk to get smacked like he usually does.”

Later, I would discover that this practice (of leaving information understood) is used often in the Bible and it even has a name—apiosiopesis. And I would also learn that this is the source for a great deal of Kabbalistic lore about the Book or Books God (and the Heavenly Court) have up there. But it still seems like something went missing from the text–and the verse still strikes me as…modneh.

A Happy and Healthy New Year to everyone from all of us Book Templars.

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