Some of you may know that when I was in high school, I had decided that my future path would be to become a Conservative Rabbi. I went undergrad to the Joint Program between the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University because I thought it would give me the Jewish grounding I would need to enter Rabbinical School. There’s a lot more to the story, but, needless to say, I did not follow that path. Yet, I still love looking at Jewish text and finding meaning in the words of our sages.
With that as background, as I sat in Rosh Hashana services, I read and reflected on that powerful prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef. To me, it’s one of the most soul rattling prayers recited during the High Holiday season. A section of it goes like this:
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die….
Typically, spending much of my professional life doing fundraising, I focus on the later part of the Unetaneh Tokef that states: But repentance, prayer and tzedaka averts the severe decree. But this Rosh Hashana my focus was on the idea about a Book of Life where on Rosh Hashana, people’s names begin to be inscribed with their “destiny” and on Yom Kippur, that book is sealed for the year. This period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called the Ten Days of Repentance because it’s our “last shot” to get included favorably in the book.
While sitting there and staring at the ceiling of the sanctuary, I started thinking, what if we misread the text. What if it is not necessarily on THIS Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on THIS Yom Kippur it is sealed? What if the length of time for us to get our act together is not limited to just the Ten Days of Repentance? Is it possible that G-d would be willing to give us an extension? Could we modify the text a bit to say that this Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and next Yom Kippur in 5785 (2024) it is sealed?
I truly believe that the High Holidays give us all an opportunity to re-evaluate how we should live our lives. Perhaps we take the ten days to focus on that and plan to do better over the next year. How should we treat each other? How should we give tzedakah? Should we focus more on how we behave, speak with other people and even how we deal with others online? Should we think about those we love and care for even more?
I cannot believe that a merciful G-d expects us to undo our wrongs in ten days. Repent yes, apologize yes, but change? No, change takes time, and doing it right can take a lifetime. Still, I think that the Unetaneh Tokef actually lets us take that time. Because the Jewish calendar runs differently from the Gregorian calendar we use in day-to-day life, there are approximately 390 days from this Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur 2024. I seem to think that if we were to live our lives for the next 390 days in anticipation of the sealing of the book, we could make this Pittsburgh Jewish community the most inclusive, supportive and inspired as we aspire it to be. And then the next year, we can work to improve even on that.
Thanks for letting the “Rabbi” in me express myself.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a G’mar Chatima Tova. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life (whether this year or next).