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You’re the Author as is everyone else - Kol Nidre 5780


Rabbi Benji Stanley, Westminster Synagogue   

One of my best friends got a book deal soon after leaving University; it was very impressive and exciting. And then came the work of writing the book…. which was hard. He and his family experienced a terrible and unexpected loss during those years which also gave him other responsibilities, while those book deadlines were extended, and extended. During those years of being together as a family, and occasionally writing, while having to do some paid work too, he met a young woman that it turns out he loves. She is warm, caring, extremely intelligent, and actually, so it turns out, a really good writer. It turned out she was a good writer when my friend, increasingly sharing with her everything, including the challenges of writing this book, allowed her to try her hand at a few sections. The feedback came back from his literary agent and publisher; “This is some of the best work you have sent us! What’s happened?! So exciting!” Indeed my friend and his partner were now building momentum, writing more, supporting each other, covering between them different styles and needs - it was quite a complicated genre piece. They faced a dilemma. “What’s happened?!” the publisher excitedly asked. Now, this sort of book does not conventionally sell well with more than one author’s name on the front. You need a photo of a single person, still more often a man, with steam coming from the cup of coffee, or smoke from the cigarette. My friend confided in his agent first to seek advice. “Tell no-one he said. It would be career suicide”. My dear friend faced a dilemma.

We are told on this day of Yom Kippur that a book has been written and is about to be signed. Be’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun u’veyom tzom kippur yeychateymun. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed or signed - a chatimah is both a seal and a signature. On these days, in our services, we say more about this book: Emet ki atah hu dayan u’mochiach v’yodeya v’eid. It is true that You are the one the Judge, that tests and knows and witnesses. V’chotev v’chotem; that writes and signs… And You will recall all that has been forgotten and open the Book of Memory. Now, at this point, we might be uncomfortable about a book that is apparently extremely important and in which we feature quite prominently, our whole lives feature, but we fear, without our necessarily giving the author the required permissions. Based on these lines, it might sound like metaphysical deals our being made at our expense above our heads, and then our liturgy gives a further detail about this Book, this Book of Memory, this Book of Life: V’chotam yad kol adam bo. The signature or seal of every human being is upon it, this book. We have already said that the Divine signs or seals, and this is what we might expect. In the Torah a signature or a seal might come from a ruler or priest, from the visibly powerful, issuing a decree. Yet not the Book of Life and Memories of now, and today and forever; that we need to sign, each of us, tonight and tomorrow. The line, “Everyone’s seal is in it”, is striking for not only does it complicate the notion of the most visibly powerful being the author, but it insists on multiple authorship, on universal authorship. My friend’s literary agent would be having a breakdown.

Each of us is author of our own lives, and we should build a world in which this is so. Or at least, we are the signatory. A signature is both stylistically only yours, and it is decisive. Start developing your signature: you might reflect on when you are best, combining what you have been given with what you can give, on when you have been best over the last year. You might resolve to do more of this, to embrace this. In putting ours signatures in the book of life, we should realise ourselves in a way that allows others to realise themselves. This book is meant to have the signature of every person in it; if others are diminished for they have no passports or food or love or adequate education, then we’re not signing in the right way. We’re taking up too much space.

Resolve to sign a book that is revealed across people and time. When imagining such a book we might think about what we know (those who organises services) as “Scroll Number 4”, or our Horazdovice Scroll. It is a scroll, in its way, with many, many signatures in it, and here I want to pay tribute to some of those who have left an imprint in the scroll and our community. When Evelyn Friedlander who passed away last week first encountered the 1564 Cezch Scrolls that came to this building from Prague in 1964 having just survived Nazism and the disregard of Communism she saw scrolls that people wanted to weep at when they saw them because of their state as well as their significance. Evelyn spent a decade developing the museum and overseeing the repair of the scrolls so they could bring life, so that people could read and interpret them bringing their own signature. She did so much for the work that Jeffrey Ohrenstein and his team continue today. Scroll 4, we are lucky in this synagogue to have on permanent loan. Our bnei mitzvah read on it when they step up. So I remember when Scroll 4 was read from by Amelie Linsey, whose life was taken in Sri Lanka along with her brother, Daniel, earlier this year. She read from the Scroll, a passage that we are in fact reliving now at this time of year, in which we finalise with God a more co-authored second set of tablets - and she shared with the community her thoughts on the importance of guidance while also avoiding the idolatry of ideas that are too fixed. When Amelie stepped up, having tentatively and then brilliantly prepared for the moment, amidst all her other work and pressure, she was able to do so because she has been lovingly taught, really lovingly taught with such encouragement and smiling determination by Ilana Alexander, who passed away last Shabbat. Ilana taught and touched so many of us. When she met up to tell me that her illness had become more serious the only time we cried during that conversation was when we talked about Amelie. So that moment when Amelie stood up to read from scroll 4 was one of being wrapped in a scroll with many signatures, with the imprint of Evelyn and Ilana, and all those who protected that scroll but perished, and all those who read from that scroll and perished - and all those who we are told by the Torah to look out for, and to advocate for. At the heart of our community is a book that brings together teachers and students, those who maintain scrolls and those who read from them, a book that persistently orients us towards each other.

Tonight and today, get working on your signature, that which you personally can contribute which allows others to thrive, to sign and to live and to leave their mark. If you’re really excellent at the stuff that lets your name prominently shine then get even better at the other stuff too - make that part of your signature. George Elliot taught us that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”. So sign this book that may be hidden but is as real as any mark you will make. I am moved when I visit a hospital or a hospice and find the signatures of other members who have come earlier that day - sign even more of those books this year, those visitor’s books are a decent facsimile of the book of life and memories. I am moved when I am alone in a room with somebody who is nearing their end but they are surrounded by the well wishes of those who have sent cards and flowers and, of course, Carpo Chocolates. One sits with somebody who is only partly conscious and wonders what you’re doing: you’re paying tribute to their life, you’re insisting that the best of the past is substantive, that memories can form the reality of a better future from which we forge a book of life. So reflect on your past, your year, and when you are best, and how you can start signing now, making a mark that allows others to make their mark. Help us develop the signature of this community, a community that makes its mark, digging into its past, and its present and celebrating and growing the moments of co-authorship: when young people give their interpretations of a text that demands their personal interpretations, when folk turn up to comfort somebody they didn’t know, or honour someone they didn’t know; a community in which we visit the sick; a community that amidst all the busyness binds us all in everyday acts and momentous acts in community. Let us see that the quality of our mark, our seal, our signature, is the help we give others to leave theirs.

So my dear friend had a dilemma regarding that book deal… and of course they insisted in putting both their names on the front of that book - even after the publishers pretended they didn’t hear, or asked whether a smaller credit might do. I don’t know if the book sales suffered a tiny bit (who knows) but they’re strong together. I hope they can inspire us tonight and today to reflect on how we will leave our own mark on life, a mark which insists on co-authorship.

Gemar Chatima Tova - may you create for yourself a good sealing.

Sat, 7 December 2019 9 Kislev 5780