When it comes to talking about God, the Bible and Jewish liturgy almost invariably resorts to anthropomorphism and metaphor. The reason is simple. Even the most gifted liturgists and spiritualists among us are lacking the spiritual vocabulary adequate to do anything other.
Given that God has no body, no mouth, no dimensions and is wholly other as regards humans, it is virtually impossible to speak of God in anything other than human terms, even to point of calling God "Him" or "Her." Every time the Bible says “And God spoke to Moses,” it is doing the same thing. As theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel famously explained, speech implies lips to form words, and breath to make them audible. God has neither. So we depend on these anthropomorphic metaphors to help us give expression to God’s actions in the world in some intelligible way.
No single metaphor about God and the way God operates in the world has been quite as successful over a very long period of time as the “Book of Life,” so magnificently painted by the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of the High Holidays. The ministering angels, filled with fear and trembling, proclaim the day of judgment, and then … “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.”
It is often said that there are no atheists in the foxholes of war, and I would submit that there are no atheists in synagogue either when those words are intoned. Never mind the fact that the image of God “sitting” on a throne is anthropomorphic, and the idea of a Book of Remembrances in which life and death are foretold is a metaphor. The metaphor is so powerful, and so effective, that we all feel the majesty of the moment as we stand and hear the familiar melody to which the prayer is chanted. Even the greatest cynics and skeptics come to synagogue on the High Holidays “just in case” that metaphor is truth. We all want to be inscribed, and sealed, in the Book of Life.
Tradition teaches us that the wholly righteous are inscribed and already sealed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and the wholly, irretrievably wicked are inscribed and sealed in the other book, also on Rosh Hashanah. Their metaphorical judgments are complete, and their destinies assured.
But the wholly righteous and the wholly wicked constitute only a tiny fraction of the Jewish people. Most of us, almost all of us, fall somewhere in the middle. We are neither wholly righteous nor wholly wicked. We have moments of grace and courage, and other moments in which our behavior is less distinguished. It is for those of us in this category, and I count myself among them, that these Ten Days of Penitence are of the greatest import. We still have the chance (again, metaphorically) to influence our ultimate destiny via t’shuvah, tefilla utz’dakah … penitence, prayer and charity. Those actions can, and here it gets tricky, depending on how literally you want to interpret that metaphor, either avert the damning judgment, or mitigate its severity.
These precious few days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, part of the Ten Days of Penitence, are our chance at “swaying God’s judgment” in a more favorable direction. The notion of an ambivalent God, one who might be moved by human actions, underlies the raison d’etre of Jewish prayer. We desperately want to believe that our sincerity can impact God, so that God’s mercy might, in the words of the Talmud, conquer His anger. In fact, the Talmud features a passage in which God Himself prays this prayer; “May it be My will that my mercy conquers my anger!” Talk about ambivalence.
No matter how literally one chooses to read these passages, this much is surely true. These days of penitence are the most propitious time to translate good intentions into concrete plans of action, so that we might actually change our attitudes and behaviors for the better. Good intentions on their own are not highly regarded in Jewish tradition. Action matters.
God works, as the saying goes, in strange and mysterious ways. It is not given to us to know the correlation between human action and divine response, or, for that matter, human inaction and divine response. But mobilizing ourselves to change in a positive way at this fragile and sacred time is an important statement of not only our good intentions, but of our desire for genuine improvement. That can only be a good thing.
To all: a G’mar Hatima Tovah; may you all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of good health, happiness, prosperity and peace.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.