Monday, September 25, 2017

Rosh Hashana Review 2017

I've been away, but let's see if I make it back in the new year. If you've been around more than me recently, thanks.

So a few things went right this year. First, and foremost I attended a synagogue that offered a fat-free service. By this, I mean we were served none of the unnecessary lard that clogs things up and slows things down, things like: An auction, a speech and a kiddush.

Skipping them saved us more than an hour.

Next, I ate well. The work of the next week and a half is to shed some of the weight.

Finally, I solved a pressing theological problem. For months I've been struggling with this idea that tefilla changes us, causing God to react to us differently. (Long time readers will remember this excellent post on the subject). While I can concede the idea may work on an individual basis, its hard to understand how changing ourselves via prayer cures a sick person or ends a drought.

Appropriately the thunderbolt hit me during Unetaneh Tokef, when I realized the true meaning of the words ma'avirin et roah hagezayrah.

The correct translation - and cheers if you beat me to this - is "remove the evil from the decree," and not anything like "cancel the evil decree," which is what I'd previously thought. The difference is important.

Because, as I understand it now, the prayer isn't insisting that repentance, prayer and charity can change or negate a divine decree. We aren't asserting that our words and action will have some supernatural effect on someone else's illness or on the weather or the decisions other people make regarding us. We're only saying that the "evil can be taken out of the decree"

The decree itself goes forward - people die, remain impoverished and so on - but thanks to the effect repentance, prayer and charity have had on our thinking, we no longer experience these tragedies as something evil. When we use repentance, prayer and charity to re-calibrate your perspective in keeping with Jewish values, the terrible events that are the fate of all men, no longer appear evil.

Let me explain what I mean, with a few examples.

SICKNESS: Certainly, its unpleasant to suffer from an illness, but someone who has trained himself to think about the world in the true Jewish sense won't experience it as an evil. Instead, he'll frame it as an opportunity, or a punishment, or a brute act of a nature. However much he might suffer, he won't experience the suffering as something evil. Thanks to how repentance, prayer and charity have reorganized his thinking there is, to his mind, no evil in the decree.

BANKRUPTCY: The Koren machzor includes an anecdote about Abarbanel, in which the rabbi tells the Spanish king that all he really owns is what he has given to the poor and needy. The rest can be seized by the king in an instant. Someone who has adopted this view, a view that can be cultivated through acts of charity, sees no evil in the loss of his fortune. The money was never really his at all. While the privatization that come with poverty can be terrible, the person who has adjusted his thinking in the way I am attempting to describe does not see any evil in it. It's simply his lot.

UNTIMELY DEATH: I have no wish to minimize the pain of losing a loved one, just as I have tried not to minimize the pains of illness or poverty\, but the theory I am attempting to develop holds true in this case, as well. We can think of an untimely death of a great injustice, or we can think of it as something natural. We can see ourselves and our loved ones as immortal or we can view ourselves as human beings, prone to the sharp vicissitudes of fortune. The Unetaneh Tokef tells us this:
A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream."
We aren't meant to last, the poem reminds us. We aren't meant to ride through life without ups and downs. Only the King, the Living and Enduring God, is eternal, unaffected, unchanged. He endures. We decline and disappear. Thorough repentance, prayer and charity we come to recognize our mortality, our vulnerability and our impermanence. And, having accepted these facts of our existence we can, I am proposing, serenely face all that life has to offer, seeing no evil in it.

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