This week is the final countdown to Rosh Hashanah, the day when our fates are written for the New Year. The liturgy tells us that God sits in heaven judging all people and writing our fates in a giant book–“Who will live, and who will die; who will see fullness of years and whose death will be untimely.”
The sad thing is that for many Jews, the very imagery of the holiday that is supposed to spur us to mend our ways can make it hard for us to get there.
A king on a throne? There was certainly a time that that image invoked reflexive awe and reverence, but today it can sometimes feel downright quaint. God writing our fates in a book? Most Jews today don’t think of God as a puppeteer pulling the world’s strings, deciding who is rewarded and who is punished.
So what to do?
It would be tragic if the imagery of Rosh Hashanah kept Jews from realizing the main point of the holiday which, in a word is: Change. Not apologize, not forgive–all of those are simply(!) means to an end of entering the New Year as a different, hopefully better, person than the one who said good-bye to the last one.
Rosh Hashanah promises us that change is possible, but as anyone who’s ever been through a 12-step program knows, genuine change is hard. How do you recreate yourself on the anniversary of Creation to be a person not bound by the same resentments, frustrations, cycles, and demons that have marked your life to this point?
The answer, I think, is two-pronged: fear and hope. The fear serves as the motivation to change, since real change is so hard to accomplish. The iconography of the king on the throne may not work for us, but recognizing our lack of control over what will happen to us in the coming year can. Stopping to acknowledge, as the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer does, our powerlessness, that we may die this year, can serve as a spiritual shake by the shoulders–the slap in the face from reality we may need to get the process started.
The other piece of the equation is hope–the trust that if we begin the difficult and painful process of change we will be supported, will be met halfway. Once again, we don’t need the traditional imagery of the holiday to convey that point to us. Instead we pray, surrounded by community, confessing shared sins and making shared promises to try to do better. It is the support of the community, reaching out together to appeal to God, that can give us the strength to make the New Year a truly New Year.