Jews have a strange way of celebrating holidays. Take the New Year, for example. Most of the world celebrates a new year with parties, presents or hangovers. Not Jews. It’s all about death and destruction.
Our new year 5772 begins Wednesday at sunset with Rosh Ha-Shanah, the birthday of the world. (I always forget to ask if that is based on the first day or sixth day of creation).
Every new year, we begin by fighting for our mortal lives.
On Rosh Ha-Shanah, our ancient rabbis taught that our fates for the coming year are “penciled-in” and, ten days later, on Yom Kippur, they are sealed – for life or death, for health or sickness, happiness or sorrow, wealth or not-so-much wealth. And because Jews can be lugubrious at times, we go through the recitation of how many ways we could die — water, fire, disease, famine, war, etc. (The list goes on and on. Who knew that there were so many ways to die prior to modern warfare?)
During the 10 days, one can sway G-d from the harshest of punishments by our good acts, repentance and atonement for our sins committed during the prior year (here, 5771) and return to the principles of our faith. Nevertheless, it all pretty much puts a damper on any thoughts of parties with confetti, funny hats and noise makers.
We don’t even sing happy birthday to the world. If I were the maker of the world, there would be hell to pay (no scare tactics, there) if some massive number of earthly beings, sea creatures and plants didn’t start a rousing round of “G-d’s a jolly good fellow — um — non-corporal entity”.
Living year-to-year like this makes a person wonder why a Jew takes out a 30-year mortgage, or eats vegetables instead of ice cream. I guess I understand the 30-year mortgage — why buy something with cash if your fate the next Yom Kippur is shall-we-say “tentative”? Better to borrow money and leave more liquid assets to your heirs, should the fate have a negative prognosis. But vegetables? Well, I guess on a day-to-day, they are important to digestion, the specific details of which are somewhat of a preoccupation of our people.
It isn’t all sack cloth and ashes. We do gather for a meal together but we are focused on not talking about the tragic outfits at synagogue or the odd recombination of couples from last year, because it is not settled law whether for atonement purposes, these sins are included in last year’s sins or next year’s sins. And we act so sure that we will live another year, that we don’t start with dessert. The sheer hubris should get us deeper in trouble, even if we don’t have to account for it until 5773.
And then there are people like me, who think that G-d (if G-d even listens to the rituals we ascribed to Heavenly declaration) has billions of creatures to judge, so that’s why some of the good get caught up with bad and the some of the bad seem to get rewarded. Also, what a downer to have to note everyone’s sins 24/7 (ok, G-d rested on the Sabbath, so 24/6), and then have to remember all of them to give an initial prognosis on Rosh Ha-Shanah and then listen to 9 days of whining about why it wasn’t really stealing, gossip, adultery, pork or whatever. On the 10th day, I would flood the earth and start again. Wait, G-d did that once. (And by the looks of global warming, it is happening again.)
Still, I am looking forward to these ten days of awe. It is a religiously mandated time-out of the usual rhythms of life. At different times during these ten days, there is time for quiet, for chanting, for meditation, for family and for solitude.
Something in me needs space to think about my family and the world and my place in both. I have a visceral need to course-correct some aspects of my life and to resolve to do some things differently and do other things better. I think this need comes from my fears about the future of the world, our country, our economy and our humanity and their effects on my ability to provide for my family. And I need these Days of Awe to figure out how I can transform my fears into hope and action.
May this be a year of peace and other blessings for all of us, all over the world.