September 25, 2008
Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?
What the High Holy Days teach us in a season of change
(Page 2 - Previous Page)As a member of a Reform congregation, I take full advantage of the theological autonomy that my movement gives its community. I wrestle with God; or rather, I wrestle with the idea of God. Generally, I am quite adept at silently, idiosyncratically reinterpreting the God language in any service, so that when I say those words, they reflect my own fumfering understandings of the Divine: more immanent than transcendent; more Ayn Sof than Adonai; more mystery than revelation; more awe and reverence than dread and revenge.
But the notion of a 10-day interval during which my fate will be sealed? That has always exceeded my capacity for metaphor. I just can't wrap my soul around the idea of a spiritual amnesty that lasts only as long as the Nordstrom men's sale.
For me, the narrative of a God who takes 10 days to decide if I've been naughty or nice, a God who gives me one shot at appealing my sentence, a hurry-up-and-repent-or-you'll-be-really-sorry-when-the-gates-close God, reaches its apotheosis in the U'Netaneh Tokef. Is there anything in the service more difficult than this prayer? Difficult both in the sense that it is almost unbearable to say, and also in the sense that it is so resistant to understanding, or at least to my understanding.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
It is impossible to speak such a list and not recall the people in our lives who reached the end of their days in the preceding year, not be reminded of the fragility of life in the year to come, of the way we all must live in mitten drinnen, in medias res, in the middest, always on the knife-edge between joy and grief. This, I get. And from these words, I gratefully receive the gift of awareness, of carpe diem, of appreciation for every moment, of don't-sweat-the-small-stuff.
But what I don't get, where I stumble when I try to translate it into the language of my personal cosmology, is the concept of a celestial chronicle in which my fate is foreordained. I don't believe in destiny, in beshert, except in retrospect, when it no longer matters. Yes, things do turn out the way they do, but not because they are meant to be, not because I did or didn't pray my heart out on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not because I didn't take enough advantage of the loophole:
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of tefillah, teshuvah and tzedakah. But it strikes me that these actions are good in and of themselves, and not because they can win us an 11th-hour sentencing reprieve from the great Governor in the sky. I just can't believe in the severe decree, except in the limited sense that we are all ultimately condemned by our mortality. I can't believe in divine predestination; I can only believe in the unknowable vicissitudes of life -- life the roller-coaster, not life the horoscope; the unfathomable journey, not the oracle's predictions, or the palmist's, or the prophet's.
The best I can do with the U'Netaneh Tokef is to release it from the High Holy Days narrative, to free it from the book and spring it from the gates. The best I can do with fate's severe decree is to take it as a statement of the tragic sense of life -- the idea that biology is destiny. The best I can do with the escape hatch of repentance, prayer and righteousness is to understand it as the contradictory assertion that history really can happen, that we hold in our own human hands the possibility of change. It doesn't have to be that way, the words whisper. You can get on a different path. It's not too late. It's hard, it's a struggle, you may not succeed, but in principle, it is possible.
And when I do that -- when I find in this piyyut both of the two great warring ideas about change, and both in their uncompromising fullness -- I can bask in this prayer's uncanny power to encompass each of them; to balance these countervailing powers; to choreograph these contrary torsions into a single, strangely comforting ballet; to offer an aesthetic and sensual experience of the paradox of change, instead of requiring us to be philosophers, or scientists, and take sides.
When we sing the U'Netaneh Tokef this year, we will be enacting its timeless dance of change during a presidential election all about change. But when we leave our congregations and return to this roiling political season, it is not as though we will be leaving that paradoxical prayer behind us. Instead, we will be recapitulating its themes in the theater of democracy.
Democracy, despite the sentimental barnacles we attach to it, is as fraught with the contradictions of change/no-change as are our souls. Utopian forms of government, like communism, are built on the premise of the perfectibility of man, the earthly achievement of an ideal society once thought only to exist in the afterlife. Cynical systems, like fascism, proceed from the premise that human nature is fixed and not at all pretty. Needless to say, both of these polar conceptions of changeability have resulted in the deaths of freedom and of millions.