Beyond the G-d of Petty Things

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As a child, I learned about the G-d who measures our deeds over this time of year, carefully placing our merits on one side of the scale and our demerits on the other.
by ADINA ROTH | Sep 14, 2017

While this image certainly has its place in a child’s imagination, it needs to evolve into something more complex in an adult, or we are at risk of diminishing the gravitas and potential of this time.

“Rosh Hashanah”… jeered an atheist Jewish friend of mine when I was 23 …“isn’t that the day when G-d decides who will live and who will die?” 

He said these words with derision, as if to say how can you believe in a G-d who takes a personal interest in your life and rewards or punishes you accordingly? What he didn’t say, but implied is: “What about young children who die? Or those who perish in a Holocaust or genocide? Did those people ‘deserve’ to die in some way because their demerits outweighed their merits on some abstract scale?”  

Something about his sceptical words got to my 23-year-old self. As I sat with the liturgy that year, reading “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed”, I wondered whether I wanted to believe in “The G-d of Petty Things”.

As I read the different ways to die in the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, “who at his destined time and who before that time… who by water and who by fire”, it felt hard to imagine a Consciousness sitting in some imagined heavens, judging and deciding on the fate of each person’s life.

 Yet, in this age of assimilation and Jewish identity loss, Judaism Unbound podcast hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rufus, make the point that Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur (The High Holy Days) remain the most widely celebrated of the Jewish holidays, clustered untraditionally with Pesach and Chanukah.

Pesach with its story of liberation and Chanukah with its themes of light and the few triumphing over the many, remain evocative stories for us modern Jews.  But what is it about Rosh Hashanah that continues to exert such a hold on us moderns?  

Perhaps the key is to return to the heart of the Rosh Hashanah liturgical service, U’netaneh Tokef, the exquisite prayer poem written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz some thousand years ago.

At a Limmud conference once,  a Jewish educator, Deborah Weissman, explained that although the prayer seems to refer to a G-d who decides what will happen to each and every one of us in the coming year, she did not find it theologically challenging.

Just the opposite, she said that as she grows older and has the misfortune of seeing friends passing away, this prayer becomes sharply poignant. Her point was: We do not know what each year holds for us and U’netaneh Tokef invites us to hold up a mirror to the deep uncertainty that is at the core of what it means to be human.

What I took from Deborah’s profound insight was that Une’taneh Tokef is the prayer of “We don’t know”, the prayer of uncertainty and the prayer of profound humility in the face of the vagaries of life.

Ultimately, we face a void and as psychologists might tell us, we make ourselves very busy in attempts to escape facing the void. 

But on Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to reflect face-to-face with an existential reality that is not easy to confront in one’s daily life. We try to show up with a good heart and mustered courage but life, death, wealth, financial struggle, health, illness, happiness and discontent, lie in the balance from one year to the next and, indeed, from one moment to the next.

With the list of different possibilities for what lies in wait, we are each invited to reflect on the year that was and turn our gaze, our heart and longing to the year ahead, with the awareness that we do not know.

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, an Orthodox rabbi in Tel Aviv, speaks about how the great religious thinkers lived not with certainty but in the void, the proverbial dark night of the soul.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are not offered the false comfort of a G-d who always answers our prayers. We are invited to relate to a G-d and to have faith without being given absolute answers. We are challenged to pray without preconditions, without our projections of what Hashem will or will not do for us.

U’netaneh Tokef concludes with exquisite poetry as the human life is compared to “a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream”. Ultimately, we are invited to ponder the mystery of our temporal nature, the impermanence of what seems so tangible.

But, the uncertainty need not paralyse us into nihilism. We are not left simply facing the void. Just as Rabbi Simcha Bunem taught that we should carry two notes in our pockets, the one saying ‘the world was created for me’ and the other ‘I am but dust and ashes’,U’netaneh Tokef invites us to hold two seemingly contradictory wisdoms. 

As we contemplate our impermanence, we are simultaneously reminded to use the tools of Teshuvah, (the spiritual practice of Return), prayer and righteous deeds in order to remove the evil decree. We are encouraged to strive for a “lev tahor” a “pure heart”, to use the best of our human abilities to return to ourselves and each other, to move into devotion through prayer and to look to where the world needs fixing through righteous action.

The power of U’netaneh Tokef is in its paradox. We contemplate the sense of being a fleeting dream, knowing full well that in the great mystery of life, our heart matters, our prayers matter, and our actions towards justice matter.  We are left with the powerful message that in the words of poet Mary Oliver, our ‘one wild and precious life’ matters dearly. It is in our hands. While we ponder the Great Mystery which lies beyond.




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