Here’s what I don’t believe. Today, Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life and writes down the names of all the righteous Jews to be inscribed for another year. If you’ve been less virtuous, you have ten days to right your wrongs by seeking forgiveness from others before God shuts and seals the book. If you don’t make it in the book I don’t think it means you’re necessarily going to die, but it isn’t good. Kind of like getting on Santa’s naughty list: you don’t want to go there.
The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the New Year and the Day of Atonement – are considered to be the most holy in Judaism. Growing up, my family did not regularly go to synagogue to pray, but we never missed going to services during this time of year. I don’t think my parents prayed then either, but it was just what you do. We went because we were supposed to. If it fell during the week, I would miss school to be there.
Not much has changed for me since that time. Out of some mysterious obligation, I go services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, dreading the boredom and unease I feel at hearing phrases like God our Father, King, Protector, etc. Blah. I usually leave early, knowing I can call home to wish my parents a happy new year and say that I went.
But there is this: the music in the service can have a kind of transformative effect on me. I hear the same tunes or prayers sung in Hebrew that I’ve known all my life and I begin to see images of Jews in the past hearing and singing these same songs. The melodies are sad, or at least they make me feel melancholy. I think of people hiding and praying. I think of musty old synagogues. I think of the Eastern European world my grandparents came from. I am part of all that.
And so like every other year, I have made my plans to go to temple later today.
Last night I opened Anita Diamant’s book, Living a Jewish Life, to try to understand what these holidays might mean beyond the story of the Book of Life. Here’s what she had to say about prayer:
The Hebrew word for prayer, tefila, which can be translated as “self-judging,” contains the notion that prayer is not about getting God to do something for you, but is a way of affecting change in yourself, a process of meditation, reflection, and stock-taking.
With all the singing and sitting and standing that goes on, I never experience prayer in temple to be a meditative exercise. It’s a communal event, in which I check out other people and wonder about their lives, practice reading Hebrew, and periodically check the prayer book to see how many pages are left until the service is done.
Diamant says that the Hebrew word for sin is chayt, a term based in archery that means “missing the mark,” as in, I could have been kinder or more generous, but I missed the mark. Interesting concept, the mark. How do you know when you’ve hit it?
Diamant quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a teacher and author. “Rosh Hashanah is about reverence and gratitude for life, the mother lode of all religious insight. Yom Kippur is about telling the worst truth about yourself, and getting new life from that.” These are the Days of Awe.
Something to think about while I’m counting pages later today.