Does the world sit in judgment on the Day of Atonement?
Is the Book of Life going to be closed as the shofar sounds at Neilah?
Is it true that, in the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed/And on Yom Kippur it is sealed/How many shall pass away and how many shall be born/Who shall live and who shall die/Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not/…/But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree?
For years I have brushed off these questions and the idea that our fates are tied to Yom Kippur and our successful supplications to God to forgive our transgressions. After all, alongside the Unetaneh Tokef is also the ancient tradition of the scapegoat, in which there was a lottery to decide which goat was sent into the wilderness, and which goat was cast to its death into a ravine. This juxtaposition of the teshuvah + repentance = Book of Life equation with the idea that there’s an element of randomness and luck (both good and bad) tied to survival is poignant.
And this year, good luck is hard to come by.
As Yom Kippur arrives, I feel the burden of the holiday like no other Yom Kippur I have lived through. Beyond the recent death of my mother, a spate of untimely deaths and cancer diagnoses in our small town, and the recent passing of the mothers of two people I know has brought that always-at-arms-length reality of death much, much closer to home.
I feel the tension and impossibility of having someone be here one day, and gone the next. In a real way I still cannot bridge the gap from the physical to the spiritual implications of death and really accept how our lives go on when someone’s has ended. And it is by no means a proprietary existential dilemma for Jews- the difficulty of wrapping one’s head around questions of death is a part of the human condition that transcends our faith tradition.
I am sure that my quest for closure on this matter will be unsuccessful. I am equally sure that Yom Kippur, to whatever degree I observe it, will not provide me with the necessary process to make myself whole on the question. At the very least, though, it has given me an opportunity to try to write something cogent about the difficulty of recent events.
I wish you all a meaningful Yom Kippur.
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