Any fair retrospect will highlight how fortunate we are to live in times shaped by the luxuries of modernity. We enjoy unprecedented healthcare, accessible long-distance traveling, valuable human rights, easily available education, sophisticated legal and law enforcement systems, sustaining economies, opportunity in all realms of human interests, and comfortable housing, to name just a few. Each of these, was unimaginable only a century ago. From printing, soap, antibiotics, indoor plumbing, electricity, aviation, engineering, and communication, to space travel, internet, stem cell research, touchscreen technology, and so much more, our quality of life has become increasingly incomparable to that of all our human predecessors. Even people several decades ago, certainly medieval and ancient man, could never have imagined our lifestyles. We can confidently declare that, thankfully, we have emerged as extraordinary masters of our world.
Which is why over the years, as a Rabbi and educator, I admittedly avoided publicly exploring the central theme of Rosh HaShanah; our unmitigated human vulnerability and unconditional dependence on G-d. I (maybe wrongly) felt that this idea, as poetically illustrated throughout the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) liturgy and fearfully highlighted in the Unetane Tokef passage in particular, would leave my audience indifferent, uninspired, untouched, and possibly even dismissive. The undignified, defenseless, and dreadful weakness of the human condition in earlier times made dependence on G-d a vivid and real idea. But how can we, superb masters of our world, genuinely feel vulnerable and desperate before G-d? Lacking the confidence to convince modern man and woman that these days of judgment are indeed critical in determining our wellbeing and that our lives are literally on the line, I instead chose themes which can acceptably appeal to the state of mind of modern man and woman such as, coronation, accountability, resolution, confession, forgiveness, renewal, universalism, biblical utopia, and more.
Sadly, however, the past year has reminded us just how weak and vulnerable the human condition really is. Without underestimating the remarkable ability of modern science to identify, trace, and study the current global pandemic, we humbly realise how an invisible virus can aggressively spread and fatally attack a human body, causing international panic, shutting economies and borders, separating families, severely undermining people’s livelihood, and brutally toppling our comfortable way of life. We are reminded that ultimately, we are not custodians of our fate, our future is never in our hands, and anything can happen to us, anywhere and anytime. This year, as I stand before my creator during the prayer of Unetane Tokef, I will have little difficulty finding the liturgy relevant, humbling, and indeed frightening, even in the twenty first century as a member of the most powerful human generation in recorded history.
Perhaps this year is an appropriate one to highlight an additional theme, beyond the frail condition of human existence. G-d is a King who passionately desires and celebrates life. Our sincere sense of vulnerability is met by the creator of life with compassion and love. Rosh HaShana does not only require us to feel deeply vulnerable and unconditionally humble. Rosh HaShana also teaches us to search and find comfort and confidence in our relationship with G-d, more than in our human achievements and success.
I pray to G-d: Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for Your sake, O Living G-d.