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A Rose by Any Other Name

Thoughts on law, religion and shooting stars from a girl in a wide-brimmed straw hat.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?

On the New Year it is written,
And on the Day of the Fast of Atonement it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.*

Now, from a combination of empirical and theological perspectives, I have trouble believing this -- but I do believe something, though I can't pin down quite what. What, if anything, do you believe is decided (or happens) on Yom Kippur?

*It occurs to me that the paragraph above makes more sense if divorced from the text that surrounds it, which talks about everyone being judged for their actions. It's less implausible to believe that bad and good things will happen to us, that God knows it, and that He will change it if we are especially meritorious, than that everything that will go wrong in the next year is carefully calculated on account of some way we screwed up this year.

7 Comments:

Blogger Lawrence said...

First, a minor correction in translation: "roa` hagezera" is better rendered as "the severity of the decree" than as "the severe decree."

Second . . . well, I don't know that I believe that either. There's a classical rabbinic idea that everyone is alotted a certain seemingly arbitrary amount of time, and can lengthen or shorten it based upon acts, but this seems like a way of massaging the data to account for bad people living long and good ones dying young.

Tue Oct 03, 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

How solidly is Unetaneh Tokef grounded in preceding Jewish thought? Does it simply put into memorable phrasing what was already considered to be true, or does it take further than it originally had been?

And the question I'm having at the moment is -- if people don't believe that (and many don't), what do they believe in its place?

Tue Oct 03, 07:59:00 PM  
Anonymous erica said...

When I believe it, my mindset sees it in a very disturbing, magical-thought-ish way. As in: I perform these specific actions and maybe if I do everything right, I'll get what I want. It's a strain, when I am thinking that way. And when I catch myself, I try and stop believing in it like that.

When I am not indulging in magical thought, I am much less strict with myself about drawing the lines of belief in a consistent manner.

Tue Oct 03, 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Rymenhild said...

I'm completely with Erica here about not drawing lines of thought in a consistent manner. I suppose I spent most of this Yom Kippur trying to use it as a way to get closer to the Divine, without worrying about what my meditative techniques had to do with my life expectancy. I honestly tried to ignore Unetaneh Tokef as best as I could.

Wed Oct 04, 12:42:00 AM  
Blogger debka_notion said...

It's interesting, because a few weeks ago, we looked at a series of commentaries on some points in the parsha that say explicitly that any time it says that you should keep the commandments so that you live, or for the sake of your life, it means that Torah improves the Quality of your life, not the Quantity. Take that as you will.

Wed Oct 04, 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I don't think its LITERALLY correct to say that something is determined by God on any particular day, because God is arguably beyond time in some sense. So from the Divine point of view, every day may be like every other.

But I try not to be persnickety about these theological lacunae on Rosh Hashanah. Its a beautiful prayer, even if it is not really true.

And I do like the idea that teshuva, tefilla, and tzedakah make anything less severe . . . kind of like spiritual chocolate.

Tue Oct 31, 12:38:00 AM  
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