Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


ALTTEXT

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.



From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.



Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?


These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

Embrace the Day, Invite the ‘Stranger’


My earliest High Holiday memory goes back to about age 7. It was the night before Yom Kippur and my parents had gone off to the synagogue, leaving my 10-year-old brother and me with a babysitter. I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to eat anything that night, went into the kitchen, got on a chair to get a banana from the top of the refrigerator, peeled it halfway down and put it into my mouth.

My brother shouted, "You can’t do that!"

Then I remembered, wrapped the banana back in its peel and put it back on top of the refrigerator. I don’t know what my mother thought when she discovered that banana, she never said anything about it. But I think that from then on I felt that Yom Kippur was something very important.

When I was 12 I won an essay contest at my Conservative synagogue by writing that my favorite Jewish holiday was … Yom Kippur. Although my choice was one calculated to win, I had in fact begun to enjoy the High Holidays. Something about the period of self-evaluation and striving to return to right behavior (my understanding of teshuvah), appealed deeply to me. So did self-affliction — I wanted to fast before my mother would let me (she made me wait until I was 13).

My strong positive feelings about the High Holidays have continued unabated throughout the 30 years of my interfaith marriage. When Wendy and I were dating, she was always willing to attend services with me. For a number of years we went to the Harvard Hillel services. In those days the services were held in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, a not very comfortable or synagogue-like setting, but we were attracted by Rabbi Gold, an Orthodox rabbi whom we had consulted before our wedding. He had treated Wendy kindly and respectfully when he advised her not to convert before we were married unless it was something that she wanted for herself.

After we bought a house in the suburbs, we joined our neighborhood Reform synagogue when our daughter was ready for religious school. At some point when our children were very young, we developed our own High Holiday custom. Traditional Jews observe tashlich on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah — they go to a body of moving water and throw bread or stones into it, as a symbolic casting away of sins. I had never performed that ritual before, but somehow we got started going to a neighborhood park on Yom Kippur afternoon and throwing bread into the Charles River — though most of the bread was intercepted by hungry ducks before it even hit the water. We have clung to that custom "religiously" and every Yom Kippur afternoon, dressed in our finest suits and dresses (which must look very curious to the families playing in the park), we feed the ducks/cast away our sins. My children, who are now 21 and 26, still insist that, as the person with most of the sins, I should throw in most of the bread.

For Wendy and me, Judaism is very much a matter of religion. We have experienced so many High Holidays at this point that the rituals and customs of the holidays are familiar and comfortable to us as a couple. On Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre melody reminds us of all of those past years. We both fast and return to the synagogue for the afternoon Yizkor memorial and concluding services. We enjoy the opportunity for an extended quiet time of reflection. Each year I hate to see the day’s"’time-out" from daily routines come to an end.

I think that our attitudes toward the High Holidays have rubbed off on our children. Several years ago, our daughter, Emily, spent a fall semester in New Zealand. She had to make a major effort to be in a synagogue for Yom Kippur — take a bus from the conservation project she was working on into Auckland, check into a youth hostel, have pizza for dinner alone and then make her way to the Progressive synagogue to attend services. In a wonderful example of Jews taking care of other Jews, she was befriended by a couple who invited her to their home to break the fast and to stay the night; it turned out that one of the couple’s children had been married by the rabbi of our own synagogue! When our son, Adam, was in Munich last fall, he, too, made his way to the Progressive synagogue, and was taken in by a young family.

The Torah and haftorah portions on Yom Kippur morning year after year are, for me, the most inspiring expressions of Jewish values — from the Torah portion’s command to "choose life" to the haftorah portion’s command "to unlock the shackles of injustice … to share your bread with the hungry."

And these readings have an interfaith theme — in Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, Moses says that those who are about to enter into God’s covenant and be established as a people include everyone in the community, even the "strangers in your camp." I experience the themes of the liturgy of the day — which emphasize the Day of Judgment, self-evaluation and repentance, seeking forgiveness, ethical behavior and taking advantage of a new beginning — as applying fully to Wendy. When the congregation prays communally for repentance, I experience her as a member of the congregation and community.

For me, the High Holidays, and Yom Kippur in particular, are a great gift — a gift that interfaith families can benefit from and fully enjoy.

Edmund C. Case is the president and publisher of
InterfaithFamily.com and the co-editor, with Ronnie Friedland, of “The
Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook”
(Jewish Lights).

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