Monday, September 16, 2013

The paradox at the heart of the High Holidays

There are Jews, we're told, who enter Elul in a state of trepidation, a state of trepidation that only becomes more severe as the great days of awe approach. We're told that some Jews of yore fainted when the Elul New Moon was announced in synagogue. Other Jews fasted during the 10 Days of Repentance and I have seen Jews cry openly during their prayers. Why the drama? Because Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the days when our fates for the entire year are written and sealed. Like it says in the famous siluk: Who lives and who dies; who gets rich and who goes broke; who enjoys tranquility and who gets harried by his childen, parents, employers and neighbors -- all of it is decided during the first ten days of Tishrei.  Believers take this seriously, of course, and respond accordingly.

But then, as the sound of the last shofar fades away, something else happens. We fill up with joy. We enter the next  holiday, the one that calls itself the happiest of the year, full of confidence that our sins have been erased and that the curses have been replaced with blessings. This, too, is part of being a believer. In fact, those of who pray in the old style say it outright in the krovot of the first day of Sukkot. The new year is here, the people are forgiven, and we can go forward with confidence.

It doesn't start to get strange until the year turns and we find ourselves back at Elul. Then the trepidation fills us up all over again. But why? Anyone who has been through the Jewish year knows the drill: We pray and God forgives. This is baked in. Guaranteed. So why would anyone knows this enter Elul or the Ten Days with anything other than perfect confidence? We aren't forgiven for our sins against God as a reward for being stressed out in Elul. The day itself atones for those types of sins. You make it through the day, complete with the regret and the confession and the resolve to be better behaved and the slate is cleansed. That's the magic and the majesty of Yom Kipper. So why enter Elul with any fear?

More strangeness: Suppose God didn't forgive you. How would you even know?

Does anyone ever say "Man, this awful thing befell me because I coasted through Neelah?"

Are we taught to say that people who suffer are sinners? All of us know someone who died young. Would you confidently say that he or she was a sinner, whom God abhorred? Of course not. That's not how we respond to individual tragedy. When something bad happens to a person, we don't write them off as a sinner, nor do we encourage them to think of themselves as bad people. Instead, we offer theodicies or throw our hands in the air and pronounce God's mysteries unknowable. This is a charitable response, of course, but not in keeping with the whole Ellul experience. If we really believe the words of the siluk about how RH and YK decide everything, if we shook on Yom Kippur because we believed God is really standing in front of the open books, making final decisions, would we bother with the theodicies and the professions of uncertainty? Or would we just admit to ourselves that the poor guy must have flunked Yom Kippur?

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