The rabbis have long spun the fable about how God, the All-Merciful, sits over His gigantic ledger, the Sefer Chayeem, the Book of Life, during the first ten days of the new year. In that unimaginably vast book the fate of every human is mapped out in detail for the coming year. Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall wax rich and who shall be poor. On and on, to every disease, accident, windfall, every twist of fate we can, none of us, imagine.
The Sefer Chayeem and God sitting over it like a divine accountant is a metaphor, of course, and we moderns see it that way. I think we do. I can’t speak for the rest of the moderns, but to me the image has the ring of a poem written to explain the inexplicable. Jews have the first ten days of the year to make amends to people we have wronged. When night falls on the tenth day, Yom Kippur, right after the final long blast on the shofar, a ram’s horn, and before the Jews rush home to eat after a long, high-stakes day fasting and praying, God seals the Book of Life and everyone’s fate is sealed for the year. That’s the poetic version, anyway.
The Jewish New Year (5779 this year) is the first day of ten days, Days of Awe, when Jews are required to search our souls and do whatever we can to set right whatever we have upset during the previous year. This is difficult work, since we rarely do things that are knowingly wrong, making it much harder to see our own bad deeds than it is to see the ones others commit towards us, and as the songsters sing, sorry seems to be the hardest word. It is rare, and the truest sign of love, to feel another person’s pain as strongly as your own. In those situations, we are required to act, directly and without hesitation.
Meanwhile, God sits with the Sefer Chayeem open, watching. God is watching for a hard heart to soften, for someone who has angrily told a loved one to fuck himself, at the worst possible moment, to approach that same person and sincerely show contrition, and love. When someone who has wronged you is truly contrite, you should never turn them away. Under that circumstance, especially during the Ten Days of Repentance, a Jew is obliged to accept a sincere apology, a repaid debt, an attempt to restore what was torn or taken.
Like I said, this is fucking hard work all around, and, because humans are a deeply flawed species of ape, is work more often not done at all. There are the endless prayers at this time of year, hours and hours in the temple, rising and being seated. Please rise, please be seated, please rise. Special prayers are chanted aloud and others are recited silently, standing. The prayers beseech God to show His infinite mercy, not like to all the victims of unspeakable horrors, who seemed to have died or been maimed without any mercy from the All-Merciful, but to those who promise their everlasting love and unfailing obedience to His will, whatever that may be, however it may stack up against Free Will, which, as far as I can see, is almost as puckish a phrase as Free Market. Almost. Unlike the Free Market, Free Will is something each of us possesses, in matters of our heart, in how we act, even if it seems to be the merest spark.
Personally, I am not one for prayers, for rising and please being seated. It was ruined for me in my youth, the whole congregation rising and being seated again together, and rising, and being seated. Struck me as an exercise in appearing to be doing the right thing, without the hard work of actually having to do anything more than turning pages, rising, being seated, mouthing words in a language you don’t know to a deity who may or may not exist. A communal worship of the source of all that is miraculous, while all that is truly horrific is, we are told, the work of humans abusing the great God-given gift of Free Will. God loved us all so much, you dig, that He left each of us free to become Hitler, if we can. Nice work, God.
Of course, God needs my praise as much as He needs my prayers. Which is to say, not at all. The only thing God or, more to the point, my fellow creatures, need from me is my heart and my mind and the actions I take in this broken world. Our life is only the things we do, no matter how hard we pray to be spared responsibility for the most thoughtless of our deeds and the people we hurt.