Author! Author!

A number of years ago, the Israeli government needed to add a special fighter plane to its arsenal. The plane would cost $500 million, and the government didn’t know where they were going to find the money. One professional fundraiser said, “No problem–we’ll find 500 of the wealthiest Jews around the world and simply ask each of them to donate $1 million. Problem solved.”

There were approving nods all around–but one lone member of the assembled group said, “Nope, that won’t work. The plane will never fly. It won’t get off the ground.”

Everyone was mystified. Why in the world would that be?

He said, “Do you have any idea how much 500 plaques weigh?”

[Pause for polite laughter]

Gotta love Jewish humor. The jokes are funny because they’re so close to the truth.

We Jews are obsessed with names. We put our names everywhere. If you walk into any synagogue, you’ll see donor walls, trees of life, memorial plaques, endowed seating, named sanctuaries and social halls, dedicated prayer books and Torah covers, and more. I once coined the term “philanthrindex”–the measure of one’s generosity to a synagogue by counting how many times their name appeared somewhere within the building. (I think my own philanthrindex is seven–not counting the name on my office door.)

I had a fresh insight into this uniquely Jewish phenomenon while chanting the Rosh Hashanah liturgy last week. The machzor describes the metaphorical Book of Life. Now, the theology can be troubling and anachronistic–do we really believe that our fate for the coming year is decided in advance by a deity writing in a giant book? We can try to influence the decision, but as the text says, on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. I would hope that most modern Jews wouldn’t subscribe to such a simplistic interpretation of religion.

But the text does introduce a subtle detail. It suggests that it is in fact not God who makes these portentous decisions, but rather it is we ourselves who write in the book. We make the entries, with our own hand. I’m much more comfortable with that imagery–we are in charge of our own decisions and control much of our own fate. We are the author of our own Book.

Furthermore, the text concludes with the well known line:

But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can mitigate the severity of the decree.

Put another way, we can at least try to stack the deck in our own favor by making choices which bring about tikkun olam, making the world a better place.

When we donate, give, support, build, remember, establish, endow, dedicate…we’re helping to do just that. We then symbolically enter our names into the Book of Life in our own hands, just like the High Holiday liturgy describes, by having our names engraved and recorded.

Yes, Jews love to have their names on things. But seeing our names appear on the many surfaces and ritual items of Jewish life is one way that we remind ourselves that the choices that we make matter and have a profound effect.

May we all continually inscribe ourselves into the Book of Life for many years ahead.


Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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