This musing is an adaptation of my musing from Rosh Hashanah 5763
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. We are told, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed." For many Jews, it is a difficult concept to embrace.
What are we to make of this conflict between free will and predestination?
For me, the question becomes–who is doing the writing?
Tradition tells us that it is G"d who makes these determinations, but I think another interpretation is equally acceptable. It is us, ourselves. We are the ones who, by what we do and do not do, by what we believe and do not believe, by what we confess and do not confess, by what we vow to do better and what we write off as simple character flaw, by all this and more, we write our futures into the book of life.
Surely, how we live our lives, or think we live our lives, can and does affect what happens on our lives. Yes, there are powers greater than us that still ultimately can affect our future. However, we can affect our present and our future, and those of others as well.
Our choice, for example, to be or not to be an active member of klal Yisrael, working to fulfill our end of the covenant we have with G"d, affects not only ourselves but the entire community. Our ability to keep our communal covenant is only as good as our weakest link. However, we live in changing times, and the definition of what it means to be an active participant in k’lal Yisrael are in flux. Individuality and universality are in tension with the communal and particularism.
There are those who say assimilation weakens us, diminishing the numbers of us who are able to act righteously and thus bring about our part in whatever G"d’s plans are for us. Then there are those who argue that the loss to our community through assimilation strengthens us, by removing the weakest from the community. Both arguments have merit, and our own scriptures speak of our being both numerous as the grains of sand, and also achieving continuity through a remnant. There is yet a third argument–that assimilation is actually a positive force that allows us to involve the gerim tosh’vim in what we do, thereby extending our power to affect the world. We truly become an or l’goyim in this way. Again, these differing understandings are in tension.
There’s a part of me that believes that surely a faithful Jewish community, numerous as grains of sand, is the better option than a remnant. Yet I cannot be certain.
Perhaps G"d is hedging bets, allowing for the future G"d wants for us, yet allowing us, through our free will, to determine how that path is to be followed, that destination reached. Which brings us back to our role in what gets written in the book of life.
How we all work towards our own today and tomorrow, as well as the collective present and future of the Jewish people is in our hands, our hearts, our minds. As we pray and reflect at Rosh Hashanah and during the days between then and Yom Kippur, let’s reflect on how we might exercise influence over what gets written in the book of life. Even, if in G"d’s great wisdom, our efforts to live by our covenant do not achieve for us another full year of life in the great book, there is surely no harm, and great righteousness, in so doing. Perhaps that is why we are told that it is indeed G"d, and not ourselves, that write what happens in the book of life. Perhaps if we knew just how much influence we could have on what gets written, we’d be tempted to do good for the wrong reasons (i.e. to gain another year of life), or become bitter and angry when, despite righteousness, the lives of some get cut off. More concepts in tension with one another.
Then again, is desiring another year of life a bad thing? Our own tradition promises us the blessing of long life if we follow G"d’s commandments and do what we have promised to do. Yet this promise has led us to all sorts of debates on theodicy, on why bad things happened to good people. Maybe it is easier (and wiser) for us to simply believe that what gets written in the book of life is not under our control or influence. What, and give up free will? ‘Tis a puzzlement, and a tension.
So, I’ve once again successfully talked myself in a circle out of my own argument. What an appropriate thing at this time of year, as we celebrate the cycle of another year.
I still want to believe that we can influence what gets written in the book of life. Yet I also know that the lives of even the most righteous among us could get cut short this coming year.
Are life and death opposites, to be held in tension? Or or they part of a circle or a continuum? Does Judaism teach us to balance, to keep in tension, life and death? It certainly asks us to "choose life." Yet it also attempts to tell us that ultimately we are not in control of our living or dying. We choose life not just so that we may live, but also those who come after us. What we do here and now will affect what happens after we are gone. So even today and tomorrow are in tension (or from tomorrow’s perspective, today and yesterday.) If there is a "book of life," it’s probably pretty messy, scribbled in, with lots of little marginal notes,changes, etc.
"But it’s sealed," I hear you say. If this is so, then why are we taught that the gates of repentance are always open? Yes, repentance is given some urgency, and even a suggested time limit during the Yamim Noraim, yet it seems that even what is sealed in the Book of Life is subject to revision. So is it sealed, pre-ordained, or not? Does free will matter. Yet more tension between ideas.
Call it yin and yang, call it l’havdil, call it mayim and shamayim, call it or v’choshech, man and woman–even in this most sacred time of the year, our tradition illustrates the dualities of existence. The dualities of life. Our system of belief recognizes it, embraces it.
In these times, the challenges seem greater, and the conflicts appear to some to be more black and white. Yet I believe things are just as gray as they ever were. As we live through this time of change for Judaism, we must respect the tensions within it, for they enable us to achieve a reasonable mean. Even if it means that the mean itself changes over time. What is normative now may not be so in the future. Certainly, what is normative now was not so in the past.
We are redefining Judaism, Jewish community, Jewish identity, Jewish worship and praxis. It is not an easy process, and there will be slips and stumbles, contentious debates and more along the way. Just remember to be open to what was, what is, and what could be.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a challenging year.
Long live the conflict between free will and predestination! May it always confound us, and give us the impetus to study, learn, and try and figure it all out.
May this new year be a year of blessing for each and every one of you and your families, and it may it be a year of confounding, searching, learning, and teaching.
Shanah tovah u’metukah,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester (portions ©2002)