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The Book of Life, the Day of Judgement

Two metaphors suffuse the season of repentance that stretches from before Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur: God as our judge, before whom our lives pass in review, and the ledgers of life and death in which His judgments are inscribed.

As theology, these images donít hold up: Is our whole year truly predetermined? Can we not repent in December? And is there really any correlation between choosing good or evil, and surviving the year ahead? Clearly not, declared Moses Maimonides and other theologians.

But as ways of examining our lives, as meditative aids to help us seriously consider this season and our lives, these metaphors contain a great deal of truth.

In putting ourselves on trial, we are making a statement that our lives merit close inspection. And in boldy facing head on the possible outcomes for the coming year Ė that we may live or we may die, that some will die by water or by fire, in a timely or untimely fashion Ė we are reminding ourselves of the stakes, and the urgency.

Any one of us may die before the new year ends. And when that happens, the life is no longer alterable. Is the way we find ourselves living now the way we wish to be remembered? Do our lives accurately testify as to who we are inside?

Yet the courtroom metaphor fails when teshuvah -- turning, or repentance Ė takes the stand. Itís not simply Godís judgment of us that counts; itís ultimately our judgment of ourselves that is the important one. And the sentence we can hand to ourselves is repentance Ė turning from the sin and thereby, miraculously erasing it from our records. We have the power to enter the new year as someone different; someone able to judge ourselves differently. But to do the hard work to claim repentance, we are required to look into the maws of death.

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At the heart of the Rosh Hashanah service is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, a striking meditation on this subject. The prayer describes God as the judge who measures our deeds and decides "who will live and who will die, who in his time and who not in his time, who by fire and who by water, who by beast and who by plague, who will grow rich..." It is a reminder of how little we know of our futures, about how high are the stakes of our lives.

The prayer concludes with an affirmation frequently translated: "But repentance, and prayer, and charity, avert the evil of the decree." Do the really avert evil decrees? Perhaps, but the prayer can also be understood on another level: A life lived with repentance, charity and prayer is a life in which inevitable tragedies are less debilitating. Lives lived with such values will provide strength, encouragement, and hope for all who come into contact with them.

 

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