These ten days inspire and invigorate us to take action and heal that which is wrong in our life and our world
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, as our common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for,” writes Vladimir Nabokov. (Part 1 of chapter 1 of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited). Humanity’s existential crisis, our knowledge of our impending death, can lead some to paralysis, others to hedonism, and others to a life of right action. That latter choice is at the heart of our liturgy in this season of reflection, which compels us to live with renewed energy and clear direction in this brief crack of light that is our existence.
For that reason, I find compelling U’netaneh Tokef, recited at the height of the service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It begins: “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.” The sacred power of these days is that we have the opportunity for deep introspection about the state of our personal life, and how we are conducting our life in relationship with others. These days empower us to reflect on our choices to date and to rededicate ourselves to our purpose or chart new direction.
The prayer reminds us that our lives are short and fragile, providing a sense of urgency to the choices in front of us: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed – who shall live and who shall die.” The poetic imagery insists that we consider that the days of our lives are indeed limited, and none of us knows when our physical existence will come to an end. Judaism teaches however that we are not powerless puppets whose terminal status makes life meaningless, but just the opposite. Each of us is an autonomous individual whose daily choices provide purpose and meaning in life.
U’netaneh Tokef sets up the process of how to live life fully human, how to deal with our existential crisis. It is “teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah that annul the severity of the decree.” The decree does not change: each of us will die and return to the eternity of darkness as Nabokov imagines it. None of us truly knows what happens to our soul or conscious essence once we die. All we know is that in our hand is the answer to the question: “how will you live?”
Teshuvah, or repentance, teaches that we have the opportunity to change our ways and our habits. As bleak as the world may seem at times, we can repair both our relationships and the world we inhabit. Tefillah, generally understood as prayer, means, as well, self-criticism. This step is essential if we are to consider in which ways we have succumbed to despair, complacency or selfishness in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges we face. Tzedakah, right action, requires us to do the nitty gritty work “out there” that makes a difference.
We live in a time in which so many aspects of society seem broken because of ignorance and fear, inequity and injustice. Sometimes it can feel like there is not even a crack of light between the eternities of darkness. These ten days inspire and invigorate us to take action and heal that which is wrong in our life and our world. (And just a few things I can think of that need to be addressed urgently and importantly here in Australia: a treaty with the original inhabitants of this land; just treatment of refugees, especially those in detention and on Manus and Nauru; marriage equality; a more equitable economy; a considered response to climate change, including stopping the Adani mine).
Yes, each of us will die, and that we cannot control; but yes, each of us can shine more light in this world by the daily life choices we make. That is the sacred power of these days. As Moses teaches in the one Psalm attributed to him: “Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12).