We celebrate Rosh Hashanah (the two-day Jewish New Year) from sunset tomorrow (Monday), October 3, to nightfall on Wednesday, October 5. The 2 days of Rosh Hashanah (jewfaq.org/holiday2.htm) begin the 10-day period known as the Days of Awe (jewfaq.org/holiday3.htm), culminating in Yom Kippur (jewfaq.org/holiday4.htm), our Day of Atonement, from sunset on Wednesday, October 12, until nightfall on Thursday, October 13.
This is the most solemn period of our year. One of the main prayers on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur is the short U’Netaneh Tokef (which has a fascinating history, see ou.org/chagim/roshhashannah/unetaneh.html). The prayer’s full name is U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom or “Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is”. It is very moving & awe-inspiring (which is most of the point; see the English text at ou.org/chagim/roshhashannah/unetanehtext.htm). One section reads:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But REPENTANCE, PRAYER and CHARITY remove the evil of the Decree!
One might say that excerpt above, except for the last line, is an eloquent testimony to a Jewish belief in predestination. Not exactly. What does the last line mean, juxtaposed to what comes before it? Our time on this earth is allotted to us, as is our end. But what we do from now until then is entirely up to us. If we flee from God and disobey Him (speaking of fleeing from, and disobeying, God, we read the Book of Jonah during afternoon prayers on Yom Kippur), if we waste our time on vain and useless things, then the decree (as to how much time we have & what our end will be) will be seen as evil. But if we use our time, however much it is, to cling to God and in doing good and purposeful things (all of this being summarized in the prayer as “Repentance, Prayer and Charity”), then the decree is not evil, but good and an expression of God’s love for us (which is probably the core principle of Judaism).
This principle was aptly (if somewhat crudely) summed up (believe it or not) in the 1989 film Cousins (with Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini & Lloyd Bridges, et. al.). In one scene, Lloyd Bridges tells his son (Ted Danson): "You’ve got only one life to live. You can make it chickensht or chicken salad." God gives us the raw material of our lives & it’s up to us decide what to do with it and mold it. Too many people take what God gave them and make chickensht with it.
And so, on the eve of this new year, my prayer is as follows. May the new year be a time for births and not for death; for planting and not for uprooting; for healing and not for killing; for building up and not for breaking down; for laughing and not for weeping; for dancing and not for mourning; for gathering stones together and not for throwing them away (or at others); for embracing and not for not embracing; for finding things (and people) and not for losing them; for keeping and not for casting away; for sewing and not for rending; for speaking and for keeping silent (each in its time); for loving and not for hating; and for peace and not for war.
I’ll add another prayer on the eve of this new year: Let’s go make us some chicken salad!