In this time of unbearable violence, hatred, and injustice in our world, these themes in the Machzor direct our attention toward our essential humanity
It is a truism that Jews are connected to one another. Our Torah predominantly describes us as a people in communal relationship with God, with a collective journey through history. Even our confessional prayers are formulated in the first-person plural (“We have sinned”).
Against this background, it is striking that the prayers we recite on the High Holy Days are largely focused on issues of concern to all humanity, not only to Jews and the Jewish people. While other holidays focus on the unique historical experience of the Jewish people (e.g. Passover, Shavu’ot, and Tish’a B’av) and the particular practice of Jews (e.g. Sukkot), the High Holy Day Machzor focuses largely on themes of human powerlessness, mortality and moral development.
Consider the following three examples.
Ki Hinei Kahomer
On the eve of Yom Kippur, we recite the beloved liturgical poem, Ki Hinei Kahomer (As Clay in the Hand of the Potter). The prayer begins with the evocative language: “As clay in the hand of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of love.”
The poem elaborates the image of God as creator of humanity, suggesting our dependence on God and ongoing malleability as we move through life. We are as stone in the hand of the mason, as iron in the hand of the blacksmith, as cloth in the hand of the draper. Surely, the metaphors are imperfect: we make countless autonomous choices in our lives.
But the poem emphasises those dimensions of life that we do not control: the family and community we were born into, the gifts we are given, the particular life challenges that are ours to navigate. Uncomfortable as this perspective may be, the High Holy Day prayers direct us again and again to the limits of human power and agency in this life. This is true for all humanity, not only, of course, for Jews.
Perhaps the most famous and most difficult prayer of the holiday season is the Unetaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the sacred power of this day – profound and awe-inspiring”). This prayer imagines God reviewing our moral successes and failings of the previous year and on the basis of these, decreeing our fate for the coming year. “Who will live and who will die? . . . Who will be at peace and who will be troubled? . . . Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched? . . .”
Contemporary Jews struggle mightily with the apparently deterministic and threatening theology beneath these images. Yet the prayer has enormous power, because it captures a reality of human life that is irrefutably true, however we may wish to deny it. We have far less control over the facts of our lives – and, of course, the end of our lives – than we like to imagine. Again, while this poem is a Jewish reflection on mortality and human vulnerability, these are issues that pertain to all human lives.
Haymo harat olam
Multiple times over the holidays, the Machzor declares: “Today is the birthday of the world.” This image vividly invites us to contemplate the creation of the world, and brings us to a sense of radical newness and possibility so important for our spiritual work on these Days of Awe. Needless to say, the world’s birthday is common to all peoples.
In this time of unbearable violence, hatred, and injustice in our world, these themes in the Machzor direct our attention toward our essential humanity – not only as Jews, but as members of the human family. Thus, our prayers on these sacred days are not only for ourselves and our own people – those who are like us, those with whom we feel comfortable, those with whom we agree – but for all humanity, including those beyond our usual field of concern.
May we rise to the challenge of holding our entire human family in our prayers this holiday season, and may our prayers be heard.