God numbers the stars; God calls them each by name. (Psalm 147:4)
Imagine that. The vast numbers of stars, the infinite number of them, not just in our night sky, in our Milky Way, but beyond—star after star after star. They are not mere dots in a dark sky to God. They are individual lights, each special in the eyes of the Holy One. How much more, then, are we, created in God’s own image, b’tzelem Elohim, בצלם אלוהים, important to God as who we are. Each person, with our quirks and talents, our strengths and our sins, each of us, unique before God, named and beloved.
My friend Gino grew up on a small farm. She tells me that when you know sheep from the time of birth, you can tell them apart. It’s like looking at a group of dogs of the same breed, she explained; if your dog is among them, or if they are all your dogs, you would see their individuality, to call them by name.
I asked her about this because I’ve been thinking about the Un’taneh Tokef, the prayer we read during the High Holy Days. It is often thought of as ominous: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Part of the reason it might frighten us is its pure honesty: “Who will pass on and how many will be created; who will live and who will die?” The reality is that every year, babies will be born and some of us, whether gathered in shul saying these words or in the larger world, will die. Everyone who is born will someday die. And this prayer makes us face that awe-full truth.
The Un’taneh Tokef describes the underlying metaphor of the Days of Awe: the Book of Life. “May you be written for a good and sweet year,” Jews wish one another at the New Year. What is this Book? God remembers everything, the Un’taneh Tokef proclaims, even that which has been forgotten by humans, by those of us whose memories God is keeping for us. God will open our book of memories and read. There is no escaping our past; there is a Book of Life for each of us, and it bears the signature of every human being.
“All who enter the world will pass before You like sheep. As a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under his staff, so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by. And You will decide the end of all creatures, and write down their sentence.”
Scary stuff, indeed.
But the image of God as shepherd suggests otherwise. God as judge, as prosecutor, suggests a Divine urge to judge us. God as shepherd, however, is a Holy One who wishes to care for us, each of us in our foolishness and wayward behavior. What is the point of the shepherd’s staff? To make sure that no lamb goes astray, gets lost in the field or wilderness. God’s staff is there to ensure that each of us is included.
God as “author and sealer, recorder and recounter” might also be less judgmental than traditionally understood. Perhaps our Book of Life might be like a journal, kept for a class. Each year, God takes each of us aside, and reviews our progress. “How’s it going?,” God asks us. “No, really. I know you’ve been working on being more honest in your relationships. Any trouble there?,” God might say. Or, “How is your energy being split between work and family? I know they are both important to you.”
This is a time to look honestly at ourselves: our goals, our failings, our hopes, our regrets. This is God as a Teacher, a Coach, a Parent, putting an arm around us and saying, “Let’s look at your life together. How might it be better? I, God, the Holy One of the world, am here to help.” “For you want them to turn from their path and live.”
If God knows the stars by name, God certainly knows me. Not just my name, but me. The Divine knows the divinity in me, and the not-so-divine. At the turning of the year, God warns us not just that some will die, but that most will live—and how? Can we accept God’s guidance to return to ourselves through repentance, turn to God through prayer, and reach out to others through righteous action. These will not prevent us from dying, but will show us how to live, how to attain a good name, a name that God will be honored to pronounce.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at email@example.com.