Dr. Seuss. Marlon Brando. Harper Lee. What do these three people have in common? For one thing, it has been a while since we have seen their best work. After all, Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel died in 1991. Marlon Brando died in 2004. Harper Lee is still alive at 89 years old but has not published anything since her Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960. To say the least, we have not heard from these three in a while. And yet, this past summer they have all burst into the national consciousness in all their glory.
Over the summer, Random House published Dr. Seuss’s book What Pet Should I Get? Theodore Geisel’s manuscript dates from about 1960. For whatever reason, he chose not to publish it at the time. Yet, he also chose not to discard it. In late 2013 his widow found the manuscript in a box labeled “Noble Failures,” and now the world can enjoy a new Dr. Seuss book 24 years after the author’s death.
Marlon Brando, one of the greatest and most enigmatic screen actors of the twentieth century, also emerged from the dead this summer. He had made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself speaking into a tape recorder reflecting on his career. A British filmmaker named Stevan Riley was given access to these tapes by the Brando estate, and he made a documentary titled “Listen to Me, Marlo” that surveys Brando’s career through the filter of Brando’s own audio recollections. One poignant observation of Brando is when he says, “Acting is just making stuff up, but that’s OK. Life is a rehearsal. Life is an improvisation. I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin so that when I wake up in there, 6 feet under the ground, I’m going to say, do it differently.”
Harper Lee is still alive, but frail. She has led a private life since Mockingbird’s publication and has not even granted an interview since 1964. Now, her novel Go Set a Watchman
is number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. This novel was written first but set in the 1950s, about 20 years after Mockingbird. The manuscript was apparently discovered by her agent last year and its publication has been a blockbuster success. The main characters are the same, yet here we find a very different Atticus Finch. The hero of Mockingbird who successfully defended a black man accused of rape is at heart a racist who seeks to maintain segregation in the South. Lee paints a gripping portrait of the South about to explode into the Civil Rights era.
Each one of these recent discoveries merits analysis in its own right, and I hope to have opportunities to offer just that in coming weeks. However, in light of today, I’m struck by the pervasive metaphor during this season of the Book of Life. In reflecting on Dr. Seuss, Marlon Brando and Harper Lee, I offer this question: Is the Book of Life ever closed for us, or do we always have a chance to write another chapter?
The metaphor of the Book of Life appears prominently in Un’taneh Tokef. We sing B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun u-v’Yom Tzom Kippur yehateimun, on Rosh HaShanah our fate is written; on Yom Kippur is sealed. This declaration rests at the fulcrum between the two main themes of the piyyut: 1) that the decrees are beyond our control and 2) that how we handle the decrees is very much within our control.
I stand by this interpretation of the piyyut, as the dichotomy between control and lack thereof is clear in the text. What occurred to me this summer was some further nuance in understanding the metaphor of the Book of Life. Certainly we have a measure of control in how we respond to a decree. It turns out, though, that we also have some control over the writing of the book and, as we saw this summer, sometimes we continue writing our book late in life or even after we die.
“The first section of Un’tane Tokef offers an image that merits further exploration. The text reads: A great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard. Angels will be alarmed, seized with fear and trembling, declaring, “This very day is the Day of Judgment”—for even the hosts of heaven are judged; no one is innocent in Your sight. All that lives on earth will pass before you like B’nei Maron.”
The question is what does kivnei maron mean? The Talmud asks this very question in response to the statement: “On Rosh HaShanah all of the world’s inhabitants pass before God like b’nei maron (TB RH 18a). What is the meaning of “like B’nei Maron”?
The Talmud then offers three interpretations. The first is that they are like lambs. This interpretation may have influenced the next sentence in Un’tane Tokef that reads: “As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff, so You will review and number and count, judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny. If B’nei Maron are sheep, then you and I passing before God at a time of judgment are like sheep passing before a shepherd that are directed to walking single file in order to receive a brand.
The second interpretation suggests that B’nei Maron are people who live in a mountainous area, Maalot Beit Maron, in northern Israel where mountain passes are very narrow and safe passage along these paths can only be accomplished single file.
The third interpretation is that B’nei Maron are like the soldiers of the House of David. Further insights into this interpretation include the notion that the words Kivnei Maron are actually derived from a mix of Hebrew and Greek: ki b’numeron, referring to a military unit of many soldiers marching in single file.
The precise definition of Kivnei Maron is open to interpretation, yet the different interpretations in the Talmud all evoke the image of a single file line. Within this line, each individual is alone. There is no one to lean on as God inspects us one by one. We have nowhere to hide. The metaphor suggests each one of us has to answer to God for ourselves; however, as the prayer continues, each one of us has the opportunity to write the next chapter of our book.
I wish to suggest that from each interpretation of Kivnei Maron we elicit a different image on how each of us can write our own next chapter.
If we appear to God as sheep, it’s worthy to note that we use the same word—sheep—to refer to both an individual animal as well as to a flock. The same is true in Hebrew with the word tzon. Each one of us is an individual, and yet each one of us is part of the larger community. Any new chapter we write is a reflection not only on ourselves but on the community of which we are a part. Each of us carries the great responsibility to ask: How does the next chapter of my life fit into the story of the Jewish people? How have I helped to ensure Jewish continuity for the next generation?
If we appear to God as if we are walking on a narrow mountain pass, the message in this image is that we should never be satisfied with where we are. We always have the opportunity to push ourselves higher towards more hesed, loving kindness. We ask ourselves how the next chapter we write will reflect our efforts to heal our broken relationships and bring tikkun, repair, into our world.
Finally, if we appear to God as soldiers marching single-file off to battle, we must ask ourselves what is it that we are soldiers for? What are we willing to go to the mat for? When the history of the Jewish people in our era is written generations from now, what will our own chapters say about us? My hope is that, each of us will contribute to this chapter in a way that demonstrates we stood proud as Jews and that we acted in a way that was a credit to the Jewish people.
Perhaps the Book of Life is never entirely closed. Whether or not we literally record our inner most thoughts in writing, each of us has the potential to influence others who will follow us in future generations. The book that we start now may well be continued or completed by those who follow us. Let me close with a poem by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg that appears in Mahzor Hadash (p. 286) titled “Each of Us Is An Author”:
“You open the Book of Remembrance, and it speaks for itself.
For each of us has signed it with deeds.”
This is the sobering truth,
Which both frightens and consoles us:
Each of us is an author,
Writing, with deeds, in life’s Great Book.
And to each You have given the power
To write lines that will never be lost.
No song is so trivial,
No story is so commonplace,
No deed is so insignificant,
That You do not record it.
No kindness is ever done in vain;
Each mean act leaves its imprint;
All our deeds, the good and the bad,
Are noted and remembered by You.
So help us to remember always
That what we do will live forever;
That the echoes of the words we speak
Will resound until the end of time.
May our lives reflect this awareness;
May our deeds bring no shame or reproach.
May the entries we make in the Book of Remembrance
Be ever acceptable to You.