This week, Jews around the world will enter into the High Holy Days, the Yamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe.
On Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur we will recite an ancient prayer known by its first few words, Unetaneh Tokef, literally, “Let Us Cede Power.” The prayer starts of with a list of existential questions:
“On Rosh Hashanah, our fate is written, and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed … How many will pass and how many will be created? Who will live and who will die? Who in their time, and who not their time? Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by drowning? Who by strangling and who by stoning? Who will rest and who will wander? Who will be safe and who will be torn? Who will be calm and who will be tormented? Who will become poor and who will get rich? Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?”
These are not rhetorical questions.
The Jewish thinker Atar Hadari explains: “No believer and no atheist, no scientist and no magician knows the answers.
“Any of those things might happen. In fact, they will happen. And some of them will happen in your very own life. Once they have happened, they will turn out to have been the story of your life.”
The prayer continues with the affirmation that each and every one of us has the capacity to change our story, and to do so through action: “But Teshuvah (returning, turning, renewal), Prayer, and Righteous Deeds can transform (Ma’Avirim) the evil of the decree.”
Renewal, prayer, righteous deeds — how can these acts change our personal story, let alone affect a divine change?
Look carefully at the text. Our sages use the word “Ma’Avirim,” to transform. The decree remains stagnant. Our inner battles between good and evil, Yeitzer Tov and Yeitzer HaRa, remain continuous. What changes, what can change, is our perspective, our attitude.
This process is referred to in cognitive behavioral therapy as “reframing.” — that we have the innate capability to change the way we perceive our realities, our circumstances.
This in turn can change the very way that we feel about ourselves, our lives.
Naaseh veNishmah —feelings follow behaviour. It is the actual acts, the behavioral modifications of Teshuva, of prayer, and of righteous deeds, that can Ma’Avirim, transform our life stories.
On Rosh Hashana we blow the Shofar and sing Hayom Harat Olam, It is the world’s birthday.
We accept the divine charge to transform ourselves. We begin to take action to renew our expectations, our ideals, our perspectives. We begin. Today is Bereisheet, In the Beginning.
May a life of wonder and the ineffable choose us, and in turn, we as well, at this precious moment of new beginnings.
Tom Samuels is rabbi at the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre in Kelowna. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.