Remembering to Live

During our daily movement through the year, our well honed defense mechanisms help us to function by staving off our anxieties about not knowing how our lives will turn out. As we near Rosh Hashanah and feel the passing year’s end, these anxieties begin knocking on our doors with rude, unremitting urgency, reminding us that mortality is never too far away. Trying to set aside all of our self deceptions, we Jews beg God to grant us life: “Remember us for life, King Who desires life, and write us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, God of life.”

This year, I am looking more closely at what this prayer really means. If God truly desires life, why do we need to ask God to remember to do this for us? Surely, God needs no such reminders. Basing this phrase upon the book of Ezekiel 18:23, the author of this prayer implies that God desires for us to choose to live by repenting and behaving better. As we struggle to return to where we need to be as human beings, we nonetheless seek God’s assurance that God will “remember,” take note of what we have done, even though that is already God’s nature. With this traditional interpretation in mind, I also suggest a different and admittedly grammatically creative reading of the Hebrew words, Zokhreinu l’hayyim, “Remember us for life”: God, help us to remember to just live.

Here is a brief story that illustrates in part my creative translation:

A half hour north of my home, sheltered in the woods, there is a retreat center to which I go, which provides me with blessed silence and spiritual respite. Because I observe Shabbat, – a distinctly communal withdrawal from the noise and stress of the world – I try to make this place my refuge of solitude during the weekdays, when I am often the only person there. I find that the center’s silence, solitude, and scenery conspire gently against me in a way that feels like Shabbat as the Talmud refers it: mei-ein ha-olam haba, a rich taste in this life of the world to come when our souls will experience complete tranquility.

As much of a social being as I am, I do enjoy being alone in those woods. However, I also find myself being overly cautious about doing things there alone, as old, primitive worries that I will be hurt or die in the wilds of nature rattle me emotionally. Each time I go on retreat, I become increasingly exasperated by my excessive vigilance, as the natural beauty calls to me and all I seem to be able to say to it is, “Sorry, but walking in you is too dangerous and I am too afraid.”

While at the center this summer, I washed away some of my fear in a freshwater pond, whose swimmable, still waters run deep, dark and lovely. I knew that the pond was open for use, but with not a lifeguard or other person in sight, I had largely resolved to keep my distance to avoid the accidents that might claim me if I swam alone. After one intimate but cramped morning of rain, reading and writing, I walked down to the pond under a clearing sky. As I stood on the dock, small ripples of water pushed on by the wind seemed to call to me with waving hands: “Jump in and have some fun.” “I want to,” I whispered, “But what if…?” “What if you spent your whole life wondering ‘what if’? Just jump in!”, they seemed to urge me. In deference to caution I did not jump in, I merely kicked off from the dock ladder, then swam out to the middle of the pond in utter peace. My eyes kept a wary vigil over my distance from the dock. However, the rest of my body floated with the freedom that comes with the growing sense that one is at home in the world, all of its potential dangers notwithstanding. No one knew I was there, and even the dragonflies skittering on the water were too busy to witness my presence. Pockets of water embraced my skin with alternating warm and cold temperatures, the results of the rain mixed with the sun’s absorbed energy. I temporarily forgot the old anxieties, and I remembered to just live.

I am not advocating throwing reasonable caution to the winds and behaving with reckless or selfish irresponsibility. Judaism rightly demands that we protect ourselves and each other from harm, so as to preserve life. Still, real living requires us to remember to let go of illusions of total control that often work in tandem with paralyzing disquiet about “what if?” These are the soul’s taskmasters that, if left unchallenged, can curl us into a fetal position of distracting self absorption that dissipates our ability to embrace the world fully. God cannot, or will not, guarantee us perfect lives. But God will guarantee that we can choose to live: to enjoy and act upon this beautiful, broken world God has given us. Zokhreinu le-hayyim nudges us in the form of a petition to step away from all the fear of the potentially dark future and to remember to live now.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.