Navigate to News section

After a Near-Death Experience Last Year, the Book of Life Has a Whole New Meaning

A few meters, a few words, a few choices: Delicately drawn is the demarcation between life and death.

Lee Cooper
September 27, 2017

My birthday, which falls over Labor Day weekend, has typically served as a harbinger of the other riches of September. These traditions include my wedding anniversary, the start of the academic year, the arrival of crispy Autumn, and of course the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And in my first September since a sudden cardiac arrest nearly killed me nine months ago, my sense of awe for this season of change has only been heightened.

I have always been a healthy guy, probably pretty boring for an actuary. And so, without any signs or symptoms, a sudden cardiac arrest, which kills 90 percent of people who experience one, was surprising. In the middle of a cold winter night, my heart stopped as I slept, and my wife was awoken by the primal sound of me gasping for a final breath. She heroically saved me with CPR. Then, after some harrowing days without consciousness, a few more days with limited cognitive function, and finally a diagnosis of a rare genetic defect related to cardiac electrophysiology, my recovery advanced miraculously.

I could have fallen asleep on the couch that late December night, apart from my wife, and she would never have heard my commotion to be able to save me. Or, the 911 operator could have given my wife suboptimal instructions, wasting precious seconds of dwindling oxygenation. I could have been taken to a hospital that made different life-or-death decisions in the intensive care unit. A few meters, a few words, a few choices: Delicately drawn is the demarcation between life and death.

And only in September—during the “Days of Awe” that follow Rosh Hashanah—is the line between life and death explicitly defined. Like many things Jewish, it is articulated through a book: the Book of Life. The Days of Awe are the only days of the year when the Book of Life is opened. A traditional greeting during these solemn days, normally said in Hebrew, translates to: “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.”

The Book of Life is mentioned in the Talmud and by the prophet Ezekiel as a sort of registry of all righteous persons who are to remain living in the year ahead. But, like so many concepts that persist in religious lore (and, in this case, in both Jewish and Christian liturgy), such an articulation of life carries most of its meaning beyond the literal notion of a holy registry of names. After nearly being blotted out from the Book of Life in my 30th year on this planet, symbols like this one weigh heavily.

We can start by trying to unpack the imagery of a physical census. Is it a scroll or a book? Does it have thin tissue paper and fine calligraphy, the pages packed densely between canvas covers like a synagogue prayer book, or is it comprised of thick vellum covered in splotchy ink, like a sheet out of a leather-bound Talmud? Is it in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek or English? Does it include middle initials before the surnames? Is it a crisply organized database, or a long unfurled string? Does it contain names at all?

If the Book of Life is, in fact, a book, then it is immediately imbued with the gravitas of a literary production. The development of language, and communication through writing and reading, are complex social phenomena. Languages evolve in order to facilitate the flow of information between individuals, and the use of language is only achieved through a process of learning.

The latter piece—process—is most essential because preparation is what enables an individual to communicate and grow, whether for personal or social benefit. The Book of Life is one of only a few “books” discussed in scripture that is not prophetic scripture itself. However timeless the Books of Moses or other prophets may be, the Book of Life is the only sacred book that is necessarily dynamic, describing a world in progress. Its essence must be a story of time itself, as measured by human lives. The Book of Life captures the scarcity and sanctity of time. Passing through time with meaning, and preparing for a defining moment in yours.

Whether we die at 29 or 30, or 18 or 108, life is a finite reflection of grace, with time as our limiting resource. Near-death experiences and the births of new lives remind us of this simple truth. The way to receive that grace—that inscription for another year—is with a zest for our world, preparing to be better for ourselves and for others. Gratitude not through simple prayer or unwitting ceremony, but through right action, appreciating the time we have for loving and learning.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish writer and philosopher, in his essay The Sabbath, characterized the core of the modern Jewish experience as shifting sanctity of space to sanctity of time. The Sabbath sits on my bookshelf as a personal favorite, but until this year I had failed to internalize the depth of its meaning. Welcoming the Sabbath—or the Days of Awe—isn’t a mere passing from profane to sacred, but rather is the culmination of an effort to master the process of preparing for the sacred. By existing in a liminal state of constant preparation, we find awe in the simple passage of time.

The Book of Life is a story of preparation. We prepare for interviews and for dates. We prepare for dinner parties and holiday services. And as we prepare this week to welcome in Autumn and the arrival of a new year, we are reminded to prepare, at all moments, for life itself.

Lee Cooper has written articles about law, public policy, and healthcare innovation. You can find him on twitter @leecoo4.