This Friday evening is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “New Year” (Rosh/head, ha-shanah/the year). Despite its name, Rosh Hashanah actually falls on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, as ordained in the Torah (Leviticus 23:24). Talk about Jewish Standard Time!
Rabbinic tradition honors Rosh haShanah as the birthday of creation, and as such it is also the birthday of mortality. Not surprisingly then Rosh haShanah’s most distinctive piece of liturgy, Unetanah Tokef (“We proclaim”) focuses on the question “Who shall live and who shall die?” and proceeds with a litany of the ways people can and will die over the coming twelve months: fire, water, famine, etc.
Unetanah Tokef ends with these words: “But repentance, prayer, and charity, can stem the stern decree.” Most people praying the Unetanah Tokef imagine that on Rosh haShanah God writes your name into either the Book of Life or the Book of Death, and to get your name in the former you must apologize to God, beg God’s forgiveness, and offer God cash bribes. Ah, the horrors of folk religion.
The prayer itself is a list of ways people die. It purpose isn’t to scare you, but to get your attention: “Hey! This could be your last year on earth. How do you want to live it? Enslaved to old habits? Obsessed with trivialities? Self¬–absorbed and clinging? Or is this a time to turn, reflect, and let go?”
You are going to die. If not this year, maybe next year, or the year after that. So death isn’t your problem. Your problem is how to live until you die. Unetanah Tokef challenges us to live with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Teshuvah, weakly translated as “repentance” literally means “turning,” and is the act of turning from evil and doing good, turning from self to others, turning from fear to love, turning from self to God. Tefillah is prayer, and in Hebrew the act of praying (hitpallel) is reflexive: true prayer is seeing who you really are as the image and likeness of God and then acting accordingly. Acting accordingly means practicing tzedakah. Tzedakah, from tzedek, justice, is the act of uplifting the poor and enfranchising the disenfranchised. The highest form of tzedakah is seeing that people are gainfully employed and self–supporting. Tzedakah means earning your money honestly in a manner than does no harm, and using your money wisely in a manner that does great good.
So on this birthday of humanity, take a moment and remember your mortality, examine your life, and where necessary turn toward a deeper act of generosity.