The traditional greeting for Rosh Hashana is “L’shana tova tikatevu” — “May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life] for a good year.” The High Holy Days liturgy informs us that on Rosh Hashana our fates are written for the coming year, “and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall leave the world, and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out the limit of his days and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast…”
This famous Rosh Hashana prayer, the Unetane Tokef, ends its grim litany of various kinds of death and unhappy circumstances with the counsel that “penitence (teshuva), prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.”
For many Jews, perhaps especially those who only step into a synagogue for two or three days each year, this narrative of an omniscient God who knows who’s been naughty and nice, and records our futures in a big book, which is sealed with the final shofar blasts on Yom Kippur, is intellectually problematic.
Indeed, this scenario seems to put us in some kind of theological dictatorship. We are like those poor souls who lived under the surveillance of the Stasi in Communist-ruled East Germany, or in the North Korean totalitarian state of today.
The late author and renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens made this point, in his stated opposition to God — especially the stern God of Judgment that Jews encounter in the Rosh Hashana liturgy.
Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, wrote about his intellectual jousts with Hitchens — “an ‘atheist vs. rabbi’ roadshow, debating the worth of religion and the reality of God in cities across America” — two years ago in the Washington Post.
Among the arguments that Wolpe recounted, Hitchens challenged the rabbi “with how much evil happens in a good God’s world. I talk about religion’s contributions, its spur to altruism, and point to the mystery of consciousness and the wide testimony of religious experience. I claim that he has no warrant for free will if everything is a product of genetics and environment. He compares God to the dictator of North Korea — except with a dictator, ‘at least you are released from his grip at death.’”
Of course, we don’t believe in a literal Book of Life, a massive tome with a well-worn leather binding. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in Jewish Literacy: “God’s memory presumably suffices to recall each person’s fate; He does not need to write down names.” However, Telushkin notes that “folk imagination has long endowed the Books of Life and Death with a tangible existence, and during prayers many Jews imagine the two books open in front of God. The Talmud itself speaks of three books: Those who are clearly righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, those who are clearly wicked in the Book of Death, and all others are classified as beinonim (in the middle), and their fate is decided” between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
“In Jewish tradition today,” writes Telushkin, “all Jews are advised to consider themselves beinonim.”
So we don’t exactly know how we stack up vis-Ã -vis God’s plan for us. We’re not sure what She’s about or if we want Her snooping about in the secret crevices of our minds.
And apart from atheism (which also doesn’t leave one with many holidays), there are varied approaches to thinking about God.
“In rabbinical school I always believed in an all-powerful God, but when you start dealing with real people who suffer, that’s not the kind of God you can believe in,” commented Sally Priesand, the first American female ordained as a rabbi, in 1972, in a Hadassah Magazine interview. “I’ve started to believe in a God who is not all-powerful but loving, who is with us, helping us to cope, sometimes disappointed in us, not able to prevent tragedies from happening to us — a God who weeps with us.”
However we are thinking about God — or no God — Jews, including those who have donned finery for their rare appearance in shul, likely will be inspired by the liturgy’s call to ethical improvement. A rabbi told me some years ago that we are commanded to do teshuva, get ourselves back on the right path, during Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe), the High Holidays, and on the day before we die. Since we don’t know when we will die, the rabbi explained, we should do teshuva every day.
My late friend Rabbi Bernard “Bernie” Raskas wrote about Rosh Hashana and teshuva, in 1979, in one his essays collected in Seasons of the Mind (Lerner):
Rosh Hashanah comes to remind us that we can do teshuvah, control our thinking. This in turn helps us to determine our behavior. It is a time to reassess our thoughts and our deeds.
Let us think for a minute about the purpose of religion. If religion comes to teach us anything, it comes to tell us that we as individuals can change the course of our lives. And that is central to the human concept of time.
Creation is part of everyday living. The daily wonders of God can be seen in the birth of a baby, the budding of the trees, the varieties of the birds, and infinite glory of the growing flowers. Creation may also be reflected in the endeavors of the artist who continually seeks to add beauty to life even as the creative person desires to deepen the experience and meaning of life itself.
This thought was given fine expression by Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel in his book The Sabbath. “Creation, we are taught, is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and for ever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuing process. God called the world into being, and that call goes on.”
This coming Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar summons us to consider that life is all about time and its use.
We all can do better. We should rush to do the right thing.
On a personal note, I would like to thank those who showed kindness to me in the past year, especially after my horrendous bicycle accident in May. I’m feeling much better. And I extend my sincere gratitude to our readers and advertisers, to the Jewish community that supported our Centennial Special Edition in July. That outpouring helped sustain this journalistic enterprise, which now goes forward into its 101st year of publication. (We are still going to exploit the “100th anniversary” for a time — it has a nice ring to it.) And I apologize to those whom I have inadvertently slighted or insulted. I will try to do teshuva, and please give me another chance, or three, if I have failed to live up to your expectations. Life seems overwhelming at times.
And as we say: “Let the year end with all its curses. Let the new year begin with all its blessings!”
From all of us at the American Jewish World, may you have a good and sweet New Year.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 9.14.12)