All that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff, so You will review and number and count, judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many will pass on and how many will be born, who will live and who will die, who will live a long life and who will die before his time…but repentance, prayer and righteousness can avert the severe decree.
-High Holiday Prayer Book
This theology, that on the High Holidays God sits in judgment and will decide who will live and who will die, is dangerous to religion. My friend, Jay Rosen (z”l), had leukemia most of his life and wrote me an email from his hospital bed in October of 1995, “Hmmm…I didn’t go to [Yom Kippur] services this year. After all, last year I struggled to get there and prayed my butt all the way down to 96 pounds, and look what it got me. Not a wonderful year. So this time I’m letting God go at it without me.” A few years later, he was dead. Can you blame him for letting God go it alone?
My friend, Joel Shickman (z”l), was a rabbinical student. He studied Torah with dedication, prayed with devotion, and taught the Jewish tradition with love and piety. On eve of his death, rabbis and rabbinical students, friends and families from around the world prayed for his life. Was his death on the 7th of Kislev, 5768 a foregone conclusion, pre-ordained in Tishrei that year? Were our prayers that Shabbat futile words tossed into the wind? Was there something defective in our repentance? Were the tears we shed on the High Holidays just a few months before not good enough? Did we not give enough money to save him?
I will not blame Jay or Joel. I will not blame their families or their communities and, even in my most self-flagellating moments, I will not be so self-centered as to believe that it was something defective in my service of God that allowed them to die. But believing God is responsible for their deaths – and isn’t that what we mean when we use those dangerous phrases like, “It’s all for the best,” and “It’s a mystery we can’t understand,” – makes me too want to let God go it alone, for how can I seek comfort for my grief from the One who killed my friends?
In my struggle after Joel’s death many years ago, I asked my friend and teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, the question that rises inevitably from a literal reading of the High Holiday prayers: How God could have let Joel die or, worse yet, killed him? “You have to let go of this understanding of God,” he counseled. “God is good, but not all-powerful. To believe in an all-powerful God is toxic.”
Rabbi Naftali Tzi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) wrote in the introduction to his Torah commentary that all the Torah is written as a poem. What that means is that the text’s straightforward meaning is not its literal meaning but the plain meaning that comes after thoughtful consideration. Prayers too are poetry, not prose. When taken literally, the images of God contained within them are toxic and dangerous to a life of faith.
Years ago in the midst of illness, my friend Jay was pushed away from God by a metaphor gone awry. I wish I had the words then to tell him what I believe today; that cancer happens but that doesn’t mean God gives it to us, or decides whether we will die in the year to come. We cannot control everything but I believe we can really choose the direction of our lives. I do not believe our fate for the coming year will be written on Rosh Hashanah, nor sealed on Yom Kippur. I do not believe that is what the prayer’s author meant us to believe. The prayer is poetry, not prose; a lyrical way of adding urgency to the moment, of spurring us forward to change, to pray, to do acts of righteousness. Let us not confuse poetry with prose, nor perpetuate an image of God that makes us want to go it alone.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Rabbi Daniel Greyber’s new book, Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God