It’s still incredible to me that the pace of life in Israel revolves so much around Jewish life and holidays. Perhaps since I did not grow up with it and have only been living here for five years it takes getting used to, but I hope it will always be special and something that neither I nor my kids take for granted.
For the past few weeks, people have greeted one another in the spirit of the holiday seasons with wishes for a Shana Tova (a happy new year) and a gmar chatima tova (Literally: A good final sealing, idiomatically: May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good.) This is common throughout Israeli society, even among entirely non-observant people, and through every element of society. I was struck recently when listening to a particular secular oriented radio program and the hosts were wishing that to one another and to their call in guests.
In Hebrew, chatima also means signature. That got me thinking about signatures in general and about how the greeting is especially appropriate before Yom Kippur, not just as a greeting and good wishes, but as a charge and commitment.
As a child growing up in New Jersey, a place central to early American history, I learned many stories of the American Revolutionary War era. One was the story of John Hancock. Hancock was the first to sign the American Declaration of Independence. He did so in big, bold and even flamboyant letters so as to make a statement despite that the British viewed this and other similar actions of the colonies as criminal. Hancock and others were wanted criminals. But he didn’t care and used this opportunity not just to ratify the Declaration of Independence, but to make a statement in doing so.
Some 200 years later, having “borrowed” Hancock’s name and legacy as the name of a financial services company, a clever ad campaign suggested that the company had the integrity of its namesake. Similarly, the name “John Hancock” had become synonymous with one’s signature.
The season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one where we are to account for our sins and wrongs both between man and God, and one another, to sincerely commit not to do them again. We wish one another and ourselves to be inscribed, and sealed, in the Book of Life. But to do so requires action and commitment. Not just hollow words and following of a ritual prayer.
So too, when we sign our signature, it means that we are putting our name behind what we write. Whether the name on a check (made all the more relevant in a post-Madoff era) to vouch that the money is there (and perhaps that it’s been earned legally), on a letter or memo to a colleague or business associate giving our word and commitment to them, or on something as rudimentary as a note to school saying that your child can’t play sports because s/he does not feel well.
In short, our signature is our guarantee. We don’t literally sign a contract with God that we promise to do better, but we do that in effect through our words, thoughts, and actions. The opposite side of the coin beseeching God that we be inscribed is our “signature” that we commit to uphold our end.
Having the sincerity and humility to account for one’s shortcomings is not an easy thing in and of itself. Recognizing and understanding them is a process, especially when one has the challenge of turning over every figurative rock to reflect on such transgressions, even, or particularly those that were not intended. Apologizing and making amends for these is equally as hard, but it’s essential. Only then can we truly be forgiven, and only then can we really be accountable to make a commitment that we won’t do it again. Short of that is insincere, and though we may utter the words and beat our chest, it’s not complete.
Albeit impersonal but no less sincere, I realize that some of my writing in the past year has upset, offended or disappointed some readers. I value and appreciate the feedback (positive and negative), and truly try to internalize the constructive criticism, even when I do something as simple as butcher the grammar. So if I have hurt, offended or disappointed you at all in my past writings, please know I am truly sorry. Sometimes what I want to say and how I say it are not 100% in sync, and even when they are, there’s room for errors. But I will, and do, strive to continue to present my thoughts and insight in a way that is honest and accurate, and most definitely not offensive, unless speaking about Jimmy Carter. Sorry, I am still only human.
May we each go into the Day of Atonement with the humility and sincerity to account for the wrongs for which we are responsible, and make every effort to be sure that as we ask God to SEAL us in the Book of Life, that our word is as good as our signature. The legend is said of John Hancock when he signed the Declaration of Independence, he said, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”
Indeed. Let our “signature” this Yom Kippur be big enough for The King to read, and read into it the sincerity in every curve of every letter.
May you and your family be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.