2016/5777 High Holiday Letter – Embracing our Truest Selves

October 2, 2016
By bethmordecai
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2016/5777 High Holiday Letter – Embracing our Truest Selves

Dear Hevreh,

Whenever the High Holidays come around, it always seems that there is pressure to make these days count more than others. From the perspective of the “Jew in the pew,” this is when we have the strongest sense of obligation, need, or guilt to show up to shul; from the perspective of synagogue leadership, this is when we can engage the most number of people and make sure our financial house is in order (our very own version of “Black Friday”); and from the perspective of clergy, this is when we have the chance to make the biggest difference in people’s lives, when our hearts and our minds are open to the idea of change and we’re all hoping and willing (in our own way) to make this year better than the next. From all of these different perspectives within our Jewish community, these few days of the year carry greater weight or importance than other days. I wonder though, do these days hold more importance for God? Or are the High Holidays no higher or lower than the rest of the year?

On one hand the answer seems obvious. According to traditional Jewish theology, these are the days when God writes our names in the Book of Life or Death, determining, in the immortal words of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, “who shall live and who shall die.” God doesn’t judge us in this way any other day, and as such these days would seem to hold greater weight and importance in regards to God’s relationship with human beings. It’s an important job for God and it’s an existential crisis for all of us. That’s a lot of pressure.

So since it’s such a critical element of the High Holiday experience, let’s deal for a moment with this theological concept that right now God is opening the books of Life and Death, determining who shall live and who shall die. Some of us may believe wholeheartedly that God is actually writing our names in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, and some of us may see the psychological and sociological benefit in believing that God could be writing our names in these celestial books. But without taking a scientific poll, I have a feeling that many of us, if not the vast majority of us, have a significant problem with this theological concept and in fact believe that God (if there is a God) is not writing our names and determining our fates during these days. After all, how do we know it’s actually happening? And if it does happen, how much “prayer, repentance, and charity” do we need to avert the evil decree as it says in the Un’taneh Tokef prayer? Does that mean that people who are bad/evil can simply do these actions and survive while good hearted people who don’t will die? And while we’re on the topic, when righteous people die too young and young children are killed before they even have a chance to really live, what value is there in believing in a God who so capriciously determines who lives or dies? If we embrace our skepticism on this matter, then it seems like today is no different than any other day. Today is not a day to be judged, but simply an opportunity to do what we should do all year around, to live life as best as we can – showing gratitude, being humble, and loving deeply — while letting the cards fall where they may. If we embrace our skepticism, whatever our conception of God, God is doing today what God did yesterday and will tomorrow; nothing more and nothing less.

As it turns out, this skepticism of our ability to “avert the evil decree” is shared by one of our biblical authors. Kohelet, the pen name of the man who wrote a book of the same name (in English, it is the esoterical “Ecclesiastes”) very famously states that “everything is futile” (hakol havel). This isn’t just capricious nihilism rather a thoughtful, informed opinion that comes after spending a lifetime trying out many different ways to live. As he writes in chapter three and which we will recite (ironically) during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, “there is a time to live and a time to die, a time for everything under the sun…” We often interpret this litany as an acceptance of the ebb and flow of life experience with good days and bad days. There is a sense of fatalism, neither good nor bad, that things “will be what they will be.” But Kohelet doesn’t share that same view. In his view, the diversity of our experiences proves that nothing gives ultimate value to mankind (3:9) and that we are no different than beasts when it comes to experiencing the vicissitudes of life (3:17-21). Thus he concludes, “there nothing better for man than to enjoy his possessions, since that is his portion, for who can enable him to see what will happen afterward?” (3:22).

In many ways I agree with Kohelet that we cannot know “what will happen afterward” or what God is doing today. All we can do is live life as naturally as we can. However, I do not think that living life as naturally as we can means simply to “eat, drink, and be merry,” rather it means that we live as we are naturally designed to live.

In his teachings on repentance, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook teaches us that we feel the need to repent in our bodies and souls as natural needs. As he writes, “when we do something bad, it will bring about pains and sicknesses” and “the nature of a human soul is to walk in the right path, and when we stray from that path, there is a sense that our heart desires a [return] to that straight path” (Orot Hatshuvah, 1:1-2). One could argue whether or not it is human nature to be good or bad, but I believe that at the core of Rav Kook’s and Kohelet’s teachings is that we cannot expect to be more than our natural selves. Our choice is to determine what is our natural state – are we optimists or are we pessimists (gratitude)? Do we help ourselves or do we help others (humility)? Do we open ourselves to love or are we fearful of being rejected (love)? The answers are hardly clear cut, and perhaps that’s why there’s so much pressure during these High Holidays. We put pressure on ourselves during these days – existentially (repentance), theologically (prayer), and financially (charity) – to be our best selves without realizing that we simply need to be our most natural, truest selves.

That striving to be our most natural, truest selves should happen every day of the year, not just three, when we are talking with our children and grandchildren, and when we are standing in line at the supermarket. What’s more, if we are in a relationship with God, then through our conversations and our prayers with God every day we can ask for the sustenance we need to become our truest selves. Perhaps imagining that God is writing us in the Book of Life or Death will help spur us to become our truest selves, but don’t let this be the only day for that kind of inspiration. We can find that inspiration any day and any place, in the shul and out of the shul. All we need to do is simply take every experience of life in stride, and listen to what our bodies and souls are telling us. When we do, I believe that we will discover, affirm, and love our truest selves. And that will surely be a beautiful day.

May this be a sweet new year, embracing each other’s natural and truest selves.

Shanah Tovah Umtukah,

Rabbi Ari Saks

Category : Ari-archive High Holidays