Thursday, September 28, 2006

A New Year

There is a modern midrash that goes:

Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush.
Uh oh, this means no fear - cavalier.
Renegade and steer clear!
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives
and I decline.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

That was of course, Rabbi Michael Stipe from Congregation R.E.M.

I was reminded of this song while considering the Unetane Tokef, the moving piyyut or liturgical poem that we read each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Unetane Tokef was supposedly written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the tenth or eleventh century, but is actually many centuries older; portions of the Unetane Tokef appear in a very ancient Genizah fragment from the late eighth century, 200-300 years before Rabbi Amnon was supposed to have composed the poem! And many scholars now believe the document was written in Palestine during the Byzantine occupation, and not in Europe at all.

But, regardless of when and where it was composed, the Unetane Tokef is one of the most powerful texts in Judaism. It is also a difficult work. It is here that we are reminded of the fact that on Rosh Hashana, judgement is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: "who shall live and who shall die." The prayer even mentions the ways in which death will come: water, fire, sword, beast, and earthquake, and plague. These images are no idle threats; the Torah is filled with similar horrors.

Speaking of the end of the world, Jewish history is replete with endings that should have been final. We've done more final tours than the Rolling Stones. From our exile from paradise to our exile from Eretz Yisroel; from the destruction of the Temple to the destruction of European Jewry, it is no understatement to say if we were not here, if the Jewish people had ceased to exist centuries ago, there is not an archaeologist or historian alive who would be the least bit surprised.

But here we are.

So why the emphasis on mortality? "Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted?" Do we really need so many reminders that our lives are fragile and short?

And what do we make of a line like: "repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree" when we know this isn't true. Every day a righteous, beautiful life ends - and there's no shortage of those who have perished at the hands of evil tormentors, despite the prayers and a life of charity. What gives?

There is a saying from the Pirke Avot that illuminates this passage, "All is foreseen, yet free will is given." We may not be able to control the numbers of our days, but we can control how we live. We can choose to be gracious and generous, kind and hopeful, even in the face of great danger and imminent destruction. And I'd like to think we as a people have done exactly that. We have always persevered in spirit. The truth is, we all die.

But as Mr. Spock so aptly put it in Star Trek VI, The Undiscovered Country: "I've been dead before." It always comes as a surprise when I tell non-Jews that the Jewish people believe in reincarnation and the return to earth of the Neshama. But it's not a subject we dwell on. It is THIS life that is important.

Today, we mark the birthday of mankind. We are reminded throughout the Jewish year of the passage of time. Each week is celebrated on Shabbat; each month is celebrated on Rosh Chodesh; but Rosh Hashanah is a little different. It is not the year we celebrate, but our own lives. We do not reflect on the events of the year, but the events of our days. And we consider how we might have improved them. In fact, through this process of evaluation, repentance and renewal, we are given a special gift. The ability to reinvent ourselves!

I'm reminded of a Dear Abby column from many years ago. A woman wrote, "I am 44 years old and have always wanted to be a doctor. Until now, my life circumstances didn't permit it, but if I try to get to medical school, I won't be a doctor for at least six years and by then I will be 50. What should I do?"

And Abby replied, "In six years you will be 50 anyway. You might as well be a 50-year-old doctor and fulfill your dream."

I was listening to that R.E.M. song many years ago in the car with my father. He wasn't that hot on pop music, but he liked the chorus of the song. Every moment, he said, is the end of the world as we know it. Every year, our lives change in ways we could never imagine. And it's all good, he said.

Today IS the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.