November 16, 2018

What shall live and what shall die?

As I recited the climactic “Who shall live and who shall die” prayer during Rosh Hashanna services this year, it struck me that maybe I should replace the “who” with “what.”

The “who” is connected to survival: Who will be inscribed in the Book of Life, and who will not. We make a very big deal about this, for obvious reasons. Survival is the ultimate bottom line, especially for a persecuted people that has learned over the millennia never to take life for granted.  

At the same time, though, Judaism is about a lot more than survival. Our holy texts focus not on how to survive but how to thrive. And in Judaism, thriving is very much about refining our characters and leading meaningful lives.

In that context, what really counts is not “who” but “what”: What character traits will help me lead a meaningful life, and what traits will get in the way?

If traits like joy, optimism, compassion and alertness will help me thrive, then I should pray that those traits shall live. And if traits like fear, depression, anger and bitterness will hurt me, then I should pray that those traits shall die.

Just as we’re pretty specific with our personal accounting at this time of year—what we did wrong, who we hurt, etc.— it’s worth being specific about the character traits we will need to keep, and those we will need to shed, in order to transform our lives and fully repent.

So, as we throw our sins away, let's also throw away the character traits that may have led to those sins. And as we reflect on the good we have done during the past year, let's hold on tight to those traits that have led to that goodness.

God can decide who shall live; we can decide who shall thrive, and with what. 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at