In My Own Words: Facing the new year

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

I know several people who find it difficult to attend High Holiday services, especially those on Yom Kippur. Not only doesn’t the idea of a book of life resonate with them, they can’t imagine a just judge deciding what will occur over the next year. They see too much pain – in their own lives and the world – to believe the imagery of the holiday has any meaning. Nor do they see any worth in asking for forgiveness for minor sins when the world is filled with evil people who reap rewards, rather than punishments.
None of the standard religious statements actually makes sense to them. What if we tell them, we can’t understand the world or God, and therefore should just have faith? Then they may ask, “So, why are there laws that we are required to follow and promises made if there is no meaning to them? What is the purpose of saying repent and you shall live when that’s not what happens? That makes a mockery of the idea of Torah.” How about mentioning the idea that the wicked will be punished after they die while the good will be rewarded. “Fairy tales,” they might say. “We’ve made up the idea to help us accept that life can be awful and that there is no rhyme or reason to who lives well and who doesn’t. And if there is no reason we can see, then why should we believe anything humans tell us about God?”
Actually, when someone says this to me, I sympathize because there is wisdom in their words. They are doing what the holiday asks us to do: look clearly at the world. I take a different tact, a different, less traditional approach to this time of year. While I love the image of a book of life, I don’t think that one literally exists. For me, the holidays are a chance to look at my own life and see where I stand in regard to where I think I should be. My favorite High Holiday imagery is not found in the liturgy, but rather in the idea that we humans have a path we wish to follow, but during the year, we often stray from that path. Life takes over and we do what must be done, and far too often don’t consider where that takes us. The High Holidays are a time to stop and look at our lives – to look at ourselves. Do we like the person we are? Have we become too negative? Or do we look on the bright side so much that we ignore the real pain others face? Are we taking care of our bodies – that precious, fragile gift given to us? Do we remember to tell the people we love how much they mean to us? Are we brave when faced with difficulties? Are we fair in our dealings and make certain everyone is treated the same?
I know that the past year has not been filled with more illness and death than any other, but rather, as I and my friends age, more illness and death will occur. That is the nature of life; that is the nature of the world. As I look back at this last year and see who unexpectedly is no longer with us, I feel sorrow at the loss. As I look ahead to this next year, I can’t help but wonder who may not be here at this time next year – even thinking that might include me. That reminds me of the need to find joy in what I have, something that is not always easy for me to do.
For me, it doesn’t matter if you believe every word in the machzor (the High Holiday prayer book) or if you reject it completely. This time of year is for all of us – religious, secular and irreligious Jews – to take stock of our lives, for ourselves if not for anyone else, and grasp what beauty and love we can offer and find.