“And we sign it with our deeds …”
Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah, congregants gathered at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace had the chance to actually place their deeds into the Book of Life. With glue, stones and kavanah, intention. Unlike Sukkot with its tactile waving of the lulav and building of the sukkah, and Chanukah with the smell of frying latkes, or Passover with the bitterness of horseradish, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are largely cerebral holidays.
We try to access the memories of embarrassing events that we’ve buried deep in our subconscious and would really rather forget. The only physical act is standing up and sitting down during prayers as the chanting of “Who shall live and who shall die?” sends shivers up and down our spines. As a rabbi and mosaic midrash maker, I struggled to find a way that we could really experience the meaning of the Days of Awe.
Back in the time of the Temple, the priest put his hands on a goat and sent him off into the wilderness, symbolically bearing the sins of the people. None of us would really want to reinstate that tradition, yet I’m sure it was very evocative and cathartic. Casting bread crumbs for tashlich into the Susquehanna River is OK, but now we have been told bread causes algae blooms and is not healthy for the fish. The image of Sefer ha-Chaim, the Book of Life, open before the Divine Judge with the absolute, honest truth of our actual deeds has always taken my breath away.
All those surreptitious bad habits, those humiliating situations when my biases showed, those shameful moments that compromised my integrity. All those words I wish I could delete when I inadvertently pressed that SEND button; the displays of short temper that make me blush as I recollect; the phone calls I should have made to family members; the thank-you notes I should have sent; the apologies I should have initiated; the patience I should have extended to those whose concerns I dismissed as trivial; the visits to those who were sick or lonely that I kept postponing. And the myriad other small-yet-piercingly mortifying actions that wove in and out of my days during the past year. Those are the deeds I imagine are in my Book of Life.
It’s rather a relief each Rosh Hashanah that God and I are finally being totally open and candid with each other. The anxiety of keeping my transgressions hidden from view takes lots of psychic energy. Since we are all human, and thereby flawed and determined to not reveal our flaws, I’m guessing others might feel that relief, too. So I tried to figure out a way that everyone could have that catharsis. I created a large mosaic of an open book, surrounded by sunset-colored stained glass. The word chaim, meaning life in Hebrew, is composed of hundreds of pieces of silver costume jewelry I found at thrift shops or were given to me.
And within that book was empty space. As everyone filed into the temple lobby, there was this large mosaic on a table, just waiting for their “deeds” from the past year to be filled in. Our religious school art teacher showed them how to dip the popsicle sticks into the glue and dab it onto an area of the “book.” Then, they took a plastic spoon and scooped small colored stones and pieces of mother-of-pearl from a bowl, and sprinkled these onto the gluey area. Most just moved quickly into the sanctuary. But others stopped to meditate quietly on their “sins,” some shed a few tears, others chose to sit at the table and continue to glue and sprinkle before entering the service. That Book of Life now adorns our social hall. People go up and touch it and and say, “Here are my deeds.” Tactile, colorful and real, they remind us of our flawed yet glorious humanity.
Rabbi Ruskin is spiritual leader of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace. Her exhibition “Judaic Mosaics” is currently on display in the Hoffberger Gallery at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave.
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