“The High Holiday liturgy talks about our fate for the year being determined on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Does Judaism believe that?”
Jewish tradition overwhelmingly affirms that our actions matter. From the earliest moments of our mythic creation in the Book of Genesis, God limits God’s role in the world and we humans are charged with the responsibility of conquering and protecting the earth. God calls out to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Ayekha (where are you)?” This is a statement of longing to be in relationship, not of location. God tells the Israelites wandering in the desert, “Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you,” so human actions can allow God to emerge in the world. We are not a tradition that tolerates a fatalistic approach to our lives.
The Rosh Hashanah liturgy does not come to overthrow this idea. However, one of the moments in the High Holiday liturgy that seems to suggest that is Unitaneh Tokef (Let us declare the holiness of this day): “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed—who shall live and who shall die.” It is easy to get lost and stuck in these words. Are we really saying, and is Jewish tradition really asking us, to believe that our physical fate for the coming year is determined during this time period? Are we really saying that our actions don’t matter? For many of us today, that idea is untenable and unacceptable. And if the core idea of this central liturgical moment is a theological non-starter, the whole liturgy and endeavor of the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe, are called into question.
However, to read these words without the preceding paragraphs is like walking into the middle of a conversation—we totally miss the context and can easily distort the substance of what is being said. If we look at the set-up to this haunting prayer, we see that we are, in fact, affirming that our actions do matter. We imagine God as knowledgeable of our thoughts and actions, witnessing and remembering what we do, recording them in a Book of Remembrance. The decree is not a capricious declaration of destiny, but recognition that our deeds create and shape reality. They are not just historical events, but as creatures of habits, our actions in the past are a pretty good indicator of our behavior going forward. In other words, our destiny, if we are not careful, may well be determined by our past.
But the machzor, or High Holiday prayer book, goes on to say that we can cause the evil decree to pass over us. If we change ourselves and how we act in the world, we can alter the future we have created for ourselves. Through repentance, prayer and works of charity, or, in other words, practices of self-reflection, personal improvement and service to the world, we can transform ourselves and the course we are on. Unitaneh tokef and the High Holidays are really a reminder that the past does not have to be our destiny and that our actions do matter.