Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published September 25, 2019 in the Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey.
The new year season is upon us and so many of us will seek to confront our own self and soul through the power of community at a synagogue of our choice. The past year has brought so much turmoil and challenges for the Jewish community. Each of us, as well, has changed. In thinking about this new year, I wanted to look at a few of the key prayers that we all will meet over the course of these holidays. They each have powerful messages for us to take into the coming year.
Perhaps the most challenging prayer that greets us is the “Unetanah Tokef.” This is the “who shall live and who shall die” prayer and it is stark and confrontational. It is my favorite because, in its symbolism, it reminds us of an undeniable truth: We control so very little of what is really important in life. What the central message of this prayer, to me, is the reality that one of the great challenges of life is how we deal with the randomness that life throws at us. How we choose to deal with that which we cannot control really does determine the type of person we become. Every person reading this knows this, as every one of us has had to deal with events and realities that we did not expect. It was the cards that life dealt, sometimes good, sometimes not so good; but each requiring that we choose a path. The Torah readings for this season provide a spiritual foundation upon which to base our choices, but the choices of how we deal with that which we cannot control remain within our hands.
Then there is the “Kol Nidre” prayer that greets us on that sacred evening. Embracing that prayer is the key theological challenge of Yom Kippur. For sins between us and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for the sins between people, Yom Kippur does not atone. Again, choice! How we live our life is up to us. When we wrong another person, when we speak ill of them, when we use social media to defame or spread “lashon ha’ra,” when our actions hurt another person; that atonement, that forgiveness can only take place by confronting the sin. Judaism does not give us an easy way out of this. Psychologically, this is very profound. So many of us carry with us past hurts, regrets, and even fears. What our tradition is saying is that, to be free, we need to confront those hurts, those deeds and actions. In facing what we have done, we can become free.
Then there is that section on Yom Kippur called the “Vidui,” the so-called confessional. We have at least two (depending on the prayer book). The “Ashamnu” followed by the more familiar “Al Chet!” We confess as an individual in public. Community supports us as we face our own meaning. What can this mean for us? Is this a “surrender” to God? Or is it an acceptance of our own mortality and fragile nature? Let me suggest it is this sense of acceptance, an acceptance that we are not, nor will we ever be, perfect; that as human beings we will err and fail. Yet, as tradition reminds us throughout the Holidays, the path to forgiveness is always there. In this age of “entitlement” and worship of self, this act of acceptance may be key. It reminds us that we are part of something greater than our mere self, for the worship of self becomes idolatry.
Finally, as the gates begin to close, we remember. “Yizkor,” our sense of always remembering, is so central to the message of the Holidays as well as who we are as a religious civilization. As we get older, this moment of memory, no matter where it comes in a service, elevates us. We recall and welcome those close to us who have died, but whose spirits rise to greet us at this most sacred of times. We are a people of history and memory, and this fact is celebrated during “Yizkor.” Again, a choice, for how we choose to honor the memory of those we loved and who have died also helps shape who we are and how we shall live in this coming year.
May this year of 5780 be for all of us a year of health, strength and peace.