Monday, September 01, 1997

The World We Can Control: The Powerful Message of the High Holy Days

The World We Can Control:
The Powerful Message of the Jewish High Holy Days

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed Erie, Pennsylvania

It is, perhaps, the most chilling prayer of the year.

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age, and who shall not; who shall perish by fire, and who by water; who by sword and who by beast;... who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled...”

And this year more than others, in the wake of assassination and terrorism, bullets and bombs and planes, fires in the west and memories of floods in the plains, in the shadow still of the hatreds of Hamas... and Amir... this year, as Jews gather together for the Jewish Days of Awe, we are reminded of the unpredictability, the seeming capriciousness of life.

The words above are recited on Rosh Hashanah in synagogues throughout the world. They are repeated the next week on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The words come from a prayer known as the Netaneh Tokef, from the first words of the prayer: "netaneh tokef kedushat hayom -- let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, it is awesome and full of dread."

But as unpredictable as life may be, this prayer promises us a measure of control. For this prayer ends with the assertion that "repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree."

The image is that of an open book, with God inscribing in that book our fate and our fortune for the year to come. Only God writes in pencil on Rosh Hashanah. God does not retrace the lines in pen until Yom Kippur. And in the meantime - pencil can be erased.

The question is: do we really buy it? Is there such a Master Plan? And how much input do we have?

These words were written by Jews in medieval Europe whose lives were clouded by persecution and uncertainty, by the degradation of forced conversion and even martyrdom. Yet they pictured themselves hauled before the court of heaven, facing the Judge and Creator of the world.

Incredibly, despite the daily testimony to the brutality of the outside world, these Jews still sensed that it was their actions and their lives that were being judged. Somehow, despite the slings and arrows of their unpredictable world, they came to feel that what truly mattered was not what was outside, but what was inside. For the only storms we can control are the ones that rage inside; the only fires we can fully master, and muster for good purposes, are our own passions.

As Jews say these words this year, we assert that we still believe that somehow, ultimately, our fate is bound up with the kind of life we lead - not what happens to us, but how we handle it. The kind of people we will be in the coming year does depend... on repentance, prayer and charity... on our willingness to change, our willingness to give, and our willingness to look beyond ourselves.