Harry Nelson

The Power of Possibility: Finding Purpose in the High Holy Days

It’s that time of year again. Rosh Hashana, a 2-day holiday, starts Sunday night. For a few weeks every fall, my work life gets complicated thanks to the Jewish holiday schedule: not just Rosh Hashana next week, but Yom Kippur the week after, Sukkot the week after that, and finally Shmini Atzeret.  One of my favorite things about the season is the time for introspection.  One of the big themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is Teshuva, often translated as “Repentance” but perhaps more faithfully as “Return,” as in returning to God, returning to righteousness, or returning to your truest self.  This year, as in the past, I find myself thinking about where I went astray this past year, where I failed to “move the needle” on personal goals, and where I could do better in my relationships with people I care about.

One challenge of these holidays (besides so much time away from work) is a sense of powerlessness.  Can I really change?  Wasn’t I talking about more or less the same goals last year, without much progress to show for my good intentions? What can I realistically do?  What’s the point of all this effort?

Jewish tradition offers some practical guidance, like asking forgiveness from people we’ve wronged, along with traditional modes:  Tefilah, prayer, and Tzedaka, often translated as charity, though I would argue for “righteousness” as a more faithful translation.  While asking forgiveness can be cathartic,  I sometimes struggle with the power of prayer, in particular with the super-long seasonal prayer services in the Machzor.  Do we really need to spend so much time praying? One challenge is what do with difficult concepts in the liturgy.  A few days ago, I was moved by the insight of Rabbi Ed Feinstein on one of the most challenging prayers of the season, U’netaneh Tokef, which envisions God deciding who will live and who will die in the year ahead:

“On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who will die at the right time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will be tormented, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Teshuva, Tefila, and Tzedaka avert the evil of the Decree.”

The prayer is dark and jarring:  God as a celestial accountant with a ledger? Results penciled in for the year ahead on Rosh Hashanah and finalized on Yom Kippur? Although this prayer is one of the best known and sung to beautiful melodies, each year, I find myself wondering what to do with its idea.  Do I really believe that things are decided in this time or that I can impact the decision?

Rabbi Feinstein offered a powerful alternative understanding.  He noted some ancient rabbinic editing:  in some medieval manuscripts, the late scholar Daniel Goldschmidt found the final line of the text as Teshuva, Tefila, and Tzedaka “me’vatlin ha’Gzeira”– nullify the Decree.  In the version transmitted to us, the text says “ma’avirin ro’a ha’Gzeira“- push off the evil of the Decree.  Nullification or any concept of changing God’s “decree” is a tough sell, but the idea of mitigating its evil is something different.

Rabbi Feinstein argued that what we are really championing is the power of possibility:  we may not be able to exercise control over what will be in the year ahead, but we can exercise our power in how we respond to life’s challenges. He drew on Victor Frankl, who wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning about the people he encountered as a prisoner in Nazi death camps. Some emerged from the nightmare unbroken and with the determination to rebuild their lives.  Others were traumatized in a way that was paralyzing even after the physical terror abated. Frankl pointed to a sense of meaning and purpose as the key. The prisoner who focused on finding his wife and children after the nightmare ended and rebuilding the life that was taken from him, the professor  determined to resume and complete the book that he had started — these people came through the most horrific experience the world has ever known intact. By contrast, those who accepted their circumstances as the only reality and gave up on any meaning or purpose beyond the present were deeply traumatized, their spirits broken.

Our own trials and tribulations are a drop in the bucket compared to what Viktor Frankl described, but the same principle applies. We cannot control our circumstances, but the power of possibility is what we do with them.  In this way, we can read the prayer as acknowledging our frailty:

Who will live and who die?  All of us.  I will. I’m alive today, but I’m going to die.

Who will die at the right time and who before his time?  Same answer.  I will live out the days given to me and I will also die before I’m ready to go.

Who by water and who by fire?  We’ve all had times when we’re drowning, underwater, buried in work or obligations, and times of being burned. The answer to each question of who will have the good (rest, peace, riches) and who will have the bad (sword, beast, torment, poverty) —  we can all answer that we will experience each of these highs and these lows in the future:  This year?  Next year?  Who knows?  All of us will have a beast chasing after us and feel suffocated. We will feel moments of inner peace and times of terrible distress. The list that we read is not some foreign abstraction but a list of the states of being, sweet and bitter, that make up our lives.

So where does this leave us? We may not be able to control many aspects of our lives, but the prayer closes with three tools we do have:

  1. Teshuva: I may have wandered off the path and given in to my instincts–to anger, to self-pity, to envy- but I can return. I can forgive and be forgiven. I can be better.  God has given me the ability to reconnect and also to let go. I may not be able to control every part of my life, but I can decide what defines me and not let the circumstance define me.   I can live with meaning and purpose.
  2. Tefila: I have a voice. I can cry out and express myself. I can do so not just in solitude, but also as part of a community. I am part of a group that is part of me, which shares my joy and my pain. I can do the spiritual work I need to do and find humility and gratitude to God for the good.
  3. Tzedaka: I may not be able to eliminate human suffering, but I can make a difference. I can help people in need. I can do something for someone else, someone who might have gone hungry or not have a shelter or suffered. I can increase the kindness and reduce the suffering.

All in all, while there are many things we can’t control, we have real power — the power of possibility.   A new way to understand the traditional greeting of “Ktiva v’Chatima Tova,” “May you be written and inscribed for good,” is as an affirmation of just that capacity.  We can make a difference in how we respond to life, for ourselves, the people we love, our communities, and for everyone around us.  I hope that we can all use whatever comes ahead as a springboard to finding new purpose in the year ahead, opportunities to reflect on our lives and our power, and  year of sweetness, abundance, and good health.

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