This is a very serious day for Jews — the most serious day of the year. Ten days ago, we began our season of repentance with Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and today we observe Yom Kippur , the Day of Atonement, when our praying and repentance are supposed to be at their most intense.
Around 1,500 years ago, the image of a great Book of Life was introduced into Jewish High Holy Day worship. As the story tells it, God writes the fate of every being in the book on Rosh Hashana and then seals the inscription on Yom Kippur . Accordingly, we humans pray and repent during these 10 days in the hope of convincing God that we are worthy of compassion, forgiveness and a good year. It is a very powerful image and one that is very motivating. We are challenged to look deep within ourselves, finding our sins and the wherewithal to repent for them. God is paying close attention, and a lot hangs in the balance.
This powerful image has become a central focus of the High Holy Days, and yet, from its very creation, some of our sages have wondered about its logic. Does God really determine on Rosh Hashana everything for the coming year? Is everyone’s fate absolutely sealed as the sun sets on Yom Kippur? What about the decisions that we seem to make every day? Are not our daily choices our own? Do they not matter?
The Torah teaches us that our moral decisions matter — that we do determine much of what happens to us. And yet, we also know that we are not the masters of our own fates. So many things are beyond our control and happen to us. There are the choices and actions of others, the machinations of great institutions, the vagaries of the natural world, and simple happenstance. No matter what we do, these other factors affect us. At the same time, however, within these swirling currents of fate, we do make decisions, and they do make a difference. Intelligent hearts cannot deny either reality.
It is for this reason that the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur walk a fine line. There is an element of determinism in life, and we pray that the great forces favor us and lessen the obstacles we face. We also pray that the great force, God, blesses us with strength and honesty and holiness so that we can improve ourselves. We pray as if everything depends on God, and we resolve to act as if everything depends on us.
We hope for blessings from heaven, and we look deeply into our own behaviors and motivations, hoping to find and bring forth the purity of soul that God has placed within. We pray that God will inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life, and we realize that our own meditations and actions are major factors in the kind of year we shall have. We realize, as did the mediaeval rabbi and philosopher, Bahya ibn Pakuda, that we are partners with God in writing the Book of Life. As he wrote, “Days are scrolls; write on them what you want remembered.”
David E. Ostrich is the rabbi at Congregation Brit Shalom in State College. Contact him at rabbi firstname.lastname@example.org.