These Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe present us with an ever-present dilemma. Time, being linear, moves in one direction. What is done is done and cannot be restored and any wrong that we may do is irreparable. This situation leaves us as human beings in an existential quandary. Our wrong doings leave us tainted, seemingly irreparable. The Psalmist captures this sense of despair: “My days are like a lengthening shadow and I am withered like grass.” (Psalms 102:12)
The very same Psalmist offers up a potential antidote: “He (God) has turned to the prayer of the desolate and has not despised their prayer. Let this be inscribed for a generation to come that a people yet unborn (literally – ‘being created’) may praise the Lord.” (Psalms 102:18-19) The fact that these later verses are a bit obscure provided the following midrash with an interpretive opportunity to thrash out an important Jewish verity which provides a religious resolution to the problem cited above:
‘He has turned to the prayer of the destitute’ – Rabbi Yitzhak said: ‘These words were said regarding the generations [in exile] that will have neither prophet, nor priest, nor righteous teacher, nor Holy Temple to atone for them; that will be left with but one prayer which they will say on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. – [God], do not despise the one prayer that they say, as is said: ‘And do not despise their prayer’!
Let this be inscribed for a generation to come that a people yet unborn (literally – ‘being created’) may praise the Lord. (Psalms 102:19) Is another people still to be created that Scripture should say: ‘a new people yet to be created?… The Rabbis said: These words refer to those generations that are guilty because of their wicked deeds, but who come and repent and pray before You on New Year’s Day and on the Day of Atonement, and thereby cleanse (literally: renew) their deeds, so that the Holy One, blessed be He, creates them anew. And what are they to do then? They are required to take into their hands their citrons and their palm-branches, the willows of the brook and the myrtles, and praise You. Hence, a people yet unborn (literally – ‘being created’) may praise the Lord. (Midrash Tehillim 102:3, Buber edition p. 431)
This season offers us a wonderful opportunity to step out of linear time and to be reborn and renewed – a new year and a new me and you. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur offer us the tools to make this project happen. And all of this is a divine gift, ready to help us to be born again (the Jewish way)! Is it any wonder that we take up our lulavim and etrogim and offer up praise and thanks to God on Sukkot for this gift!