The Rosh Hashana liturgy includes the famous Unetane Tokef prayer, which says, in part: “On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die.”
The prayer includes a rather chilling litany of who will die by various means — sword, wild beast, earthquake, thirst, famine, strangulation, stoning, etc. — and then advises that “penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity” of God’s decree on our lives.
So, the literal concept here suggests a God on high who has a ledger with a zillion entries about who’s been naughty or nice. On Rosh Hashana, God writes down our future; on Yom Kippur, the book is sealed. Thus, we have the traditional greeting for Rosh Hashana: Shana tova tikatevu — May you be written (in the book of life) for a good year; on Yom Kippur: G’mar chatima tova, May you be sealed (in the book of life) for a good year.
For many or most Jews, the threat of a God-ordained imminent extinction, as it is written in the Scriptures, is unsettling, and requires the application of some critical intelligence. It seems that we are called by the Jewish tradition to take stock of our lives — do cheshbon ha’nefesh, soul searching — during Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and make some necessary course corrections. The process of turning onto the right path, teshuva, actually is something we should do every day.
My late friend, Rabbi Bernard Raskas, wrote an essay titled “Here Comes the Judge,” which appears in his book Season of the Mind. He wrote, about the penitential period: “This is a time to renew our values and recommit ourselves to our goals. Tempered by history, we should realistically lower our expectations but not abandon our ideals. To put it another way: What we can change, we should arrange, and what we cannot cure we must learn to endure.”
In looking back on the past year, I have to conclude that, for me, it was a horrible year. The year began with my son, Max, still facing several felony conspiracy charges in Ramsey County District Court, stemming from his role in the protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention. That mess blew over in late October, with Max emerging fairly unscathed. Then my dad died on Nov. 2. Eleven weeks and three days later, my mom died. It was a bad year.
I said Kaddish for my parents during their respective shloshim (30-day) memorial observances, for the most part. My dad’s yahrzeit is coming up.
It’s been a melancholy time. My siblings and I will say Kaddish for our parents during the High Holidays.
I hope that our readers find inspiration and consolation in the Omnipresent, the One Who Is, who promises: “I will give you a new heart, and put new breath into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Let’s count our blessings in the New Year.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 9.30.11)