This Sunday night, Jews all around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and welcome in the New Year 5777. The evening kicks off a 10-day period of assessment and reflection, culminating in the intensive fast day of Yom Kippur.
This period of time provides a space for forgiveness, connecting with family and friends and remembering loved ones, people who made a difference in one’s life. Additionally, Jews take measure of their actions, especially how they might improve their loving relationships (including with oneself), their compassion, respect, kindness and pursuit of a more just and peaceful world; in other words, how through simple acts they might leave the world a little bit better than one found it in.
One of the major themes of these High Holy Days is found in a prayer called Untaneh Tokef. The traditional liturgy reads: “Who will live, Who will die” and goes on to list a variety of ways that people might perish. The theology has the image of an all-powerful God writing individual names in the Books of Life…or Death. Growing up, I found this theology extremely difficult to understand and upsetting. Is there really a God judging all my actions and my thoughts and then deciding my fate?
This theology does not work for me, and is really not what the prayer is about. I think that this notion has alienated many. What the prayer is really about is how we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. There is no guarantee to the length of our time on earth, but we can make life worth living by how we embrace each day. We do that by our actions and by our words. We do that in the ways that we find to help our closest family and friends, reach out to our neighbors in need, and lend a caring hand to those who are less fortunate (those we know and those we do not).
Will doing this guarantee that we are inscribed in the Book of Life? Absolutely not, some people will indeed die by disease, or accident, or random acts of nature or human violence. We do not control our fate in that way. We inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life by making a renewed commitment to fully living.
When people gather together in community on Sunday night during this festive and pensive time, there are those who are ill (physically, emotionally, spiritually), who have lost a loved one, and are lonely; There are also people who have experienced in the past year moments of love, contentment and renewal.
The social reality of 2016 also sets a backdrop for each person: devastating conflicts around the world, violence here in the U.S., a divisive and acrimonious political climate, ethnic and religious divisions, a growing economic disparity, and a world that often seems broken. Yet we also find a world filled with many stories of hope and courage that our media often does not tell us about.
As people enter the sanctuary with personal baggage, there is a beautiful tapestry that ties one to another. Worshippers come to state that Judaism and Jewish values do mean something to them; they yearn to find more meaning in their lives; they want to be anchored again in hope of the good in humanity, to reconnect with their own conscience, to nurture empathy, and to feel the love and support of others on the same journey.
The theology of who will live and who will die no longer bothers me, it empowers me. We inscribe ourselves in the Book of life when we keep perspective, and value daily existence. We inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life when we make our lives a sacred endeavor.
My personal hope is that the journey of these High Holy Days be an experience that each individual finds meaningful, uplifting, comforting and challenging. It is time to ask the most important questions about one’s own life and to continue the long process of discovering answers that empower, enrich and encourage each and every one of us.
Rabbi Lee Bycel serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa, and is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice.