As many of us “celebrate” the Jewish High Holidays, I wonder, “What’s God have to do with it?”
This colunm might be offensive to some readers. For that I apologize in advance.
Today marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year,” or more commonly, “the New Year,” and ending ten days later with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The ten days in between are known as the “Days of Awe,” (Yamim Noraim) or the “Days of Repentance.” According to Jewish custom, this is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.
It is believed that one of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that God has “books” in which he/she/they writes our names, determining who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. These books are written on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter God’s decree. The actions that change the decree are “teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah,” repentance, prayer and good deeds (usually, charity). These books are sealed on Yom Kippur and the concept of writing in them is the source of the common greeting during this time, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
The Jewish High Holy Days have been for me, for many years, problematic. Problematic because this God, this “King of the Universe,” this almighty deity that determines our fate for the next year based on our actions during an arbitrary 10-day period is, frankly, something I cannot abide.
What, or who, is God? According to Merriam-Webster, it is the “perfect and all-powerful spirit or being that is worshipped, especially by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as the one who created and rules the universe.”
A traditional Jewish view of God is that it is omnipotent (having unlimited power and potential); omniscient (having the capacity to know everything); and omnibenevolent (having unlimited or infinite benevolence, or good will).
I don’t recall when I stopped believing in any of that…or, if I ever believed in it. But, I did what I had to do to be a good Jew. I was 17 when my father died. After his death, to honor him and to appease my mother, I went to a minyan at our synagogue five evenings a week for a year to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish (and, to develop my taste for the post-minyan schnapps). That year so ingrained the Kaddish into my brain that today I’m generally one of the only people at a funeral who doesn’t need to rely on the transliterated “cheat sheet” when the Kaddish is recited. But here’s the thing. What was ingrained were the Hebrew words and the mystical cadence of that prayer; I never thought about what the words I was reciting actually meant. Here they are:
May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen. May his great name be blessed, forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored, elevated and luaded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he – above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.
What does any of that have to do with my dead father, who was taken from his family at the age of 49? Or my dead son, who was taken from his family weeks before his second birthday? Why, may I ask, should I exalt, sanctify, glorify, extoll, honor, elevate and laud this entity that subjected me and mine to such pain and sorrow?
On my first visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem I asked the rabbi who led our group the question that I’m sure thousands of Jews ask after their visit, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” If she provided an answer, it was so insipid that I can’t remember it. Google the question now and you’ll get many equivocal answers, perhaps as insipid as my rabbi’s.
And, where was God during the Armenian and Rwandan genocides? During the lynching of African Americans in the south and the ironic cross burnings at their homes? During the “troubles” in Ireland (where there were, apparently, competing Gods)? During the pandemics and plagues (black and other) that have ravaged humanity? And more and more and more. Where was this benevolent God? Was he punishing the sinners? Were all these innocents, sinners?
As many Around the Block followers know, I’m not supposed to be posting columns like this now. I’m supposed to be on “book leave.” But, interestingly, all this “God stuff” actually dovetails with a part of what I’m writing about…a group of stories called “Beshert.”
In colloquial Jewish vernacular, beshert essentially means “from God” or the consequence of divine intervention. When someone refers to an event as beshert it is an assertion that the invisible Hand of God was intimately involved in its fruition.
Since the fatalism implied by beshert doesn’t sit well with Judaism’s emphasis on free will and responsibility for actions, Kabbalistic sources have modified the simple idea of beshert, stating that we may have more than one, and that we can lose or gain a beshert by our good and bad actions and prayers.
My stories have, indeed, more than one beshert; in fact they have five…and counting. And, whether preordained or the result of actions, those five besherts include both good ones and bad ones. But let me be clear: God had nothing to do with any of them.
L’shana Tovah! Wishing you all a sweet, safe and healthy New Year.