In the Balance
Rosh Hashana 2- Dvar Torah- September 11, 2018—
It’s pretty intimidating to be invited to give a Dvar Torah on Rosh Hashana: I feel like the bar is set pretty high, after Rabbi Davis’ words yesterday. So in choosing a topic, I decided to focus on something that I find interesting, or difficult, or confusing about our Rosh Hashana Liturgy. I’ve always felt a little hypocritical about the whole idea of being “written into the Book of Life”, which we use to greet each other throughout the Yamim Nora’im. We wish that our friends and neighbors should be written into the Book of Life, and then on Yom Kippur, we wish that they should be SEALED into the book of life. And then what? It’s over, apparently. The Book is done for the year: if we’re in it, great. If we’re not (of course, we don’t know that until it’s too late), major bummer.
I have problems with this idea on several levels. First, at the simplest level, the anthropomorphic aspect of it, the picture of God writing in a book and signing His name on Yom Kippur, does not resonate with me. I’m sure that is true of many adults. As Bob Karasov spoke about several weeks ago, much of our imagery around God and holidays comes from childhood, and some of it just gets stuck there and never develops. But second, the more conceptual idea is also difficult: do I really believe that our actions in the past year, totally determine the coming year’s fate, to the extent that God is deciding this week, whether I will die in 5779? Our children always came home with Elul art projects showing a scale, with our good deeds on one side and our sins on the other. How does that fly with us, now that we’ve grown up?
If you’ve had a family member pass away of a terminal disease or old age, the idea isn’t so hard to relate to: certainly, when my mother-in-law, zichrona l’vracha, was 99 at her final Rosh Hashana, the thought that the coming year might see her demise was not too hard to grasp. Not because she sinned or failed to do adequate teshuva, but rather because we understand that every life must come to an end. Being written in the Book of Life, or not, seems reasonable in that situation, even though the cause for it doesn’t always transfer so well from the machzor to real life. It seems to me being omitted from the Book of Life is not always the person’s fault: sometimes it’s just, well, Life!
In contrast, when my grandson, zichrono l’vracha, died at the age of 2 months, it WAS hard, almost impossible, to grab onto the idea that, the preceding Rosh Hashana, God had decided on that outcome. And even if God did pre-determine that that child should be born and die within 2 months, what sins did that child commit to warrant such an “evil decree”? Obviously, none. Or, if you’ve known someone who died accidentally, like in a car accident, God forbid, you know the terrible toll the “what ifs” can take on survivors: What if my father had left the house 30 seconds later? What if the other driver hadn’t been drunk, or texting, or driving at all at that moment? What if he’d had a bad back that day and not left the house at all? These things are very difficult to think about, much less to think of as pre-determined months earlier by a just and loving God.
And I also have trouble with the idea that, when tragedy strikes, it is our destiny, or worse yet, our fault. If God decided this fate on the past Rosh Hashana, presumably because of our sins, that means we could have “lessened the evil of the decree” by our actions. I guess we didn’t do that, or not enough, so the tragedy struck. And what if it’s someone innocent, like a child, or someone good and sweet and righteous? Or, someone who DID try to lessen the evil of the decree? Say, it’s a tragedy that befell someone who tried every day to do teshuva, not to sin, to be a tzadik? It’s very painful to say that God pre-ordained that person’s death for a reason, even accepting that there IS a reason, but it’s a reason that we can’t know or understand.
And at a more philosophical level, why is our PAST year the determining factor? Why don’t our actions in the COMING year determine our own fate? We say we believe that our prior year’s actions create a sort of report card with “pass or fail” on it: but then we announce that “prayer, charity and repentance” can change our grade at the last minute! So, our actions last year are NOT really what determines our fate: it IS, as it should be, our actions THIS year, our reactions to our sins of the past, that help us write ourselves into whichever book we’ll be in.
It boils down to the idea of free will versus pre-destination. The classic way to reconcile these two ideas is to say, God IS omniscient (all-knowing), AND we still have free will. That is, we have the freedom to choose any action we want, and yet, God knows ahead of time which way we will choose. Therefore, it follows, He CAN write us into the Book of Life at the start of the New Year, because He knows what our choices during the coming year will be. Again, it’s easy to accept this scenario when applied to a parent/child example: the parent can offer the child milk or apple juice, and the parent might know which one the child will choose. The child is still free to choose; the parent’s fore-knowledge does not diminish the child’s free will. But in life, it’s hard to imagine that omniscient God knowing all about our future choices, and those of all the others whose choices may affect our well-being during the coming year. AND, if God is all-knowing, why do we even need to repent and pray and do tzedaka? Doesn’t He already know how it’s all going to turn out? What gives us the right to imagine that our deeds will change God’s mind, if God already knows all the future about us? This goes around in circles in my mind, and has for decades, with no satisfying answer…
These are difficult ideas to get one’s arms around, and they make the whole “Shana Tova Tikatevu” greeting a tough one for me: not tough to say, but tough to really believe.
I looked in the Koren machzor edited by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs for some inspiration around these thoughts. Speaking of Teshuva, Rabbi Sachs says that “God forgives: that ONE FACT rescues life from tragedy”. He goes on to say that WE can restore the moral harmony of the universe, through our own actions. That helps with the contradiction between predetermination by God and free will. Rabbi Sachs tells the story of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile with Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah the Governor: even though the destroyed first temple had been rebuilt, the nation was still in disarray, both politically and religiously. Many were intermarried, many had even given up speaking Hebrew, speaking the language of Ashdod instead. On Rosh Hashana that year, Ezra and Nehemiah convened all the people at the Water Gate in Jerusalem, and Ezra read publically from the Torah. Levites were stationed all through the crowd to translate and to explain the Torah for the people, because they had fallen so far and couldn’t understand it themselves, much as we would be today if we didn’t have it in English on the opposite page. The story goes that as the people listened to the Torah being read from beginning to end, they began to weep and mourn, as they realized what they had lost, and how far they had drifted away. The reading went on for two days (which is why we have 2 days of Rosh Hashana, even in Israel!), and a new tradition was born: one in which the teacher is a hero, the Rabbi is a Jewish leader, and our actions will redeem us. Not sacrifices, not wars, not politics, but prayer, acts of charity, and return to the ways in which we were taught to act. Rabbi Sachs traces our entire national character to that one day, the 1st day of the 7th month of a year about 25 centuries ago, when Ezra read the Torah to the gathered nation and they realized that they must return to the proper way as a people.
This makes sense: this shows that both as a group and as individuals, it is our OWN actions, and our own understanding and taking responsibility for them, that will lead us to another year of life.
The very idea of a “Book of Life” is very old: Moshe uses it when he pleads with God after the sin of the Golden Calf, to forgive the people or else “blot me out of the Book you have written” (Exodus 32:32). We usually assume he means the Torah when he says “The book”, but the Book of Life actually makes more sense: Moshe is essentially saying, if You don’t forgive them, and presumably you will then kill them, then kill me too. King David more explicitly uses the term “Book of Life” in Psalm 69 when he says about the wicked, “May they be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be listed with the righteous”.
It’s Rabbi Yochanan, a 2nd century Rabbi in Tiberias, who is credited with our image from the modern day machzor: Rabbi Yochanan said there are 3 books lying open in heaven on Rosh Hashana: one for the completely righteous, one for the completely wicked, and one for those for whom no judgment has yet been made. We all would agree that very few people are completely “anything”: neither good nor evil. So, most of us are hovering in the “to be determined” category, and thus the wish for inclusion in the Book of Life. The corollary assumption is, I’ll wish and imply that YOU are completely good, and thereby seem better myself. You’ll do the same for me, and we’ll all be in that good Book together! Those who judge favorably and generously, are more likely to be judged favorably and generously. This makes perfect sense, in a strictly human relations sort of way.
Rabbi Sachs also quotes his predecessor, Rabbi Jakobovits, as saying that Rosh Hashana, unlike Yom Kippur, looks ahead to our future. On Yom Kippur, we offer explicit confessions of our past sins, but on Rosh Hashana, we are more forward-focused: toward the next ten days, at a minimum, and actually toward the next 365 days. Rosh Hashana is more about our determination to act better in the coming year, to merit inclusion in that Book of Life by our improved actions. That’s also supported by the blowing of the shofar, which turns our attention to what lies ahead, not behind us.
Rosh Hashanah teaches us that life is short. We cannot accomplish all we would like to, in our lifetime. So, the message is that we must make the most of our time, and not desist from beginning the work: As Pirkei Avot says, Lo alecha ha m’lacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin lhibateil mimena: it is not your duty to complete the task, but you are also not free to desist from it. This to me is the meaning of being written in the Book of Life: that we work for betterment of the world, of our community, and of ourselves. That might mean spiritually or something else, but we cannot sit back and rest on our laurels. We must remain actively engaged, so that the writing in the Book of Life is being written continually, by us and by our deeds.
There was an interesting article recently in the New Yorker, about Optimism and Pessimism in the modern age. The author Joshua Rothman, defines optimists as those who think the world has gotten better, and pessimists as those who think the olden days were better than today. He says that even though the credo of social responsibility appeals to people on both a secular and an “inner devotional” level, we know that our typical way of engaging in the world is too passive: we read the news, we may even obsess over the news and the poor conditions of the world at large. But, he says we tend to “outsource the work of salvation to Bill and Melinda Gates”, and to trust too much in the power of good works, especially good works by others. He says pessimism can be a form of penance, a sort of spiritual humility. We don’t know how to actually work toward improving the world, so instead we bemoan its condition, believing it to be getting worse and worse as the decades go by. In this way, we feel better about ourselves by feeling bad about the world. This is not a Jewish attitude toward the world: rather, I repeat the phrase, “lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin le’hibateil mimena”: while it’s true that we don’t have to accomplish all the work in our lifetime, we DO have to try to accomplish at least some of it!
One of my favorite prayers in the siddur is the prayer we say on the Shabbat before each new month. We didn’t recite that prayer this past Shabbat, and there are several explanations in our tradition for that rather startling omission. First, the rational, straightforward (sort of “Lithuanian”) reason is the assumption that everyone already knows when Rosh Hashana is, and the prayer is meant primarily to inform the community of the date of the coming New Month. There is also a lovely Chasidic tradition that on this first month of the New Year, God Himself recites the prayer for the new month. Only after this example is set for us, do WE merit the recitation of the prayer on all the following 11 months: we emulate God, since we are created “B’Tzelem elokim”, in God’s image. We can each choose the explanation we like best, or we can embrace them both!
But what do I like about that prayer, and what does it have to do with Rosh Hashana, if we didn’t even say it this month? I believe the prayer blessing the new month ties in perfectly with the idea that, while we are asking God today to grant us life in the coming year, we are really acknowledging that it is OUR duty to make that happen, not only God’s. In the prayer for the new month, we pray that God’s will for us will be a life of goodness and blessing. Then we proceed to specify just what we expect and hope for: first, long life, which is what we are asking for today. Then, we move on from quantity to quality of that life: peace, goodness, blessings, sustenance, and physical health. These are all things that, if we expect them to happen, WE have to take actions to make it so, with God’s help. Then the prayer moves into the more spiritual and emotional realm: we ask for a life including fear of heaven and fear of sin, and a life free from humiliation and shame; a life of wealth and honor, love of Torah, and then, once more, fear of heaven. Again, honor, freedom from shame, fear of sin: these are things WE cause to happen to us, not things we are simply granted. Finally, we ask that our heart’s requests will be fulfilled for good, since we know instinctively that just because our heart desires something, it’s not necessarily good for us!
You can see why this prayer relates so well to our Rosh Hashana liturgy: we ask monthly for the same things we are asking for today, but for the entire coming year! It’s pretty much all included in that one prayer: when I consider this menu of hopes and wishes that we hope God will grant us, I’m pretty much done. Even though we didn’t recite this blessing this past Shabbat, I feel we are reciting it all day on Rosh Hashana.
Rabbi Sachs puts it this way: we defeat death not by living forever, but by living by values that live forever; by doing deeds and creating blessings that will live on after us; and by attaching ourselves in the midst of time, to God who lives beyond time. I like this idea, this interpretation of the future we wish for ourselves and for others on Rosh Hashana: that we should all be inscribed in the Book of Life, by our actions, by our prayers and values, and by our deeds toward one another; not, as Joshua Rothman says, by outsourcing good works, or by feeling pessimistic as a form of penance. This is how we can create the good decree, that we should go forward into the coming year with improvement, and as the new month of Tishrei leads us into the new year of 5779, with goodness and blessing in all their particulars.