Jews today must reinterpret ancient Holy Day messages

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One of the most moving prayers of the High Holidays receives its name by its opening words in Hebrew, "U'netana Tokef."

In English, it means: "We will proclaim the awesomeness of this day…"

Many Jews remember this as the prayer that suggests God opens a celestial ledger, inscribes on Rosh Hashanah and seals on Yom Kippur our fate for the coming year: "Who by fire, and who by water…Who at ease and who oppressed…Who will live and who will die…"

This prayer, which appears to date from the Middle Ages, suggests a fierce determinism in which God — portrayed as a heavenly judge cum bookkeeper — tallies up our deeds and renders a verdict. In light of our accountability, what possible difference can our efforts at apology, repentance and atonement make?

As if to anticipate this question, the prayer continues: "But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree."


In our heart of hearts, we recognize this as wishful thinking — well-intentioned and sincere, but wishful thinking nonetheless. If this seems a radical idea, consider the implications of inverting the sentence: Those who did not avert the evil decree must not have offered enough repentance, prayer and charity?

As the relentless march of modernity brings us face to face with the millennium, our thinking about God has undergone many changes. We often find it hard to imagine God as a king or God as a parent, despite our emotional attachment to the prayer Avinu Malkeinu, "Our Father our King." We find the idea that we are helpless before a divine decree to be diminishing of our convictions and our commitments to do better.

So what can those of us who find the inherited ideas of God problematic do with this prayer — and with the entire High Holy Day cycle of sin, confession and atonement? Can we de-mythologize this ancient language and make it meaningful to moderns?

We can if we keep three things in mind:

*Whatever the prayerbook says about God is not really about God at all, but is in fact about what our ancestors said about God. The words are human attempts to come to terms with the realities of limits ("Who will live and who will die") and the moral demands on each of us.

Our ancestors wrote in the mythic language of their time and place; we, who live in a different time and place, inherit their language but should interpret it symbolically.

If they believed that "God forgives the sinner," we may interpret this to mean that "forgiving sins is godly." If they believed that "God judges our behavior," we may interpret this to mean that "there is a godliness in the world that calls us to moral responsibility and ethical action."

*Our ancestors, like us, were human beings struggling to deal with success and failure, moral triumph and moral error, guilt and forgiveness, rejection and acceptance.

Even though we live in a different time and place, we are not so very different from those who came before us. The High Holy Days are an opportunity to reflect on the big issues of human life: birth and death, achievement and disappointment, the journey through the years as we age, maintaining and healing our relationships, forgiving and being forgiven.

Whose life cannot benefit at least once a year from a sustained period of reflection?

*How we live does in fact make a difference. Interpreted in modern terms, "repentance, prayer and charity" do not and cannot "avert the evil decree" as if religion was a form of magic and God was a subject over whom we could exercise control.

In the coming year people will get ill and people will heal; people will be born and people will die; people will prosper and people will suffer. No amount of repentance, prayer and charity is going to change who receives good and who is afflicted with evil.

The question of the High Holy Days is not why things happen but rather how will we respond to what happens.

These days are about how religion and belonging to a religious tradition and community can create a context in which we learn to live within boundaries not of our own making.

Repentance, prayer and charity do not avert evil decrees, but they can mitigate the severity of the bad things that happen in life by giving us a place in which to feel supported, cared for and valued. And by focusing us on the eternal ideals, these sacred days place our temporal lives in a larger context and imbue us with a holiness that might otherwise escape our notice.

"On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed."

Despite our differences with the theology, irrespective of our conflicts with the imagery of God, we know that the words of this prayer are true: We do not know what the year ahead may hold. But repentance, prayer and charity, our prayer tells us, can in fact make it possible to live — and to live joyfully, meaningfully, more fully than we might have thought possible — within limits not of our making and not under our control.

This is the opportunity we are given at the start of this new year. This is the promise which supports and sustains us. This is the moment waiting to be seized.