On Rosh Hashana we will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur we will be sealed, who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water. It’s a jarring incantation. Religious or not, however, this time of year – with fall approaching, a new school year starting – is a time for introspection and account-taking that extends to the very essence of our mortality.
Unless we are consciously faced with it, it is rare for people in our society to think deeply about our own deaths. (For an interesting reflection on the topic, see page 46.) But we would do well to keep the transience of life closer to front of mind throughout the year – not to be needlessly grim or to dwell on the negative, but because it is life’s finite nature that affords its value. Like anything that is limitless, life would lose some of its value if it were unending.
Time is central to Judaism. We mark the coming and the going of the day, the arrival of Shabbat and the return to the week, the numerous times in the calendar that call our attention to the seasons, our history, biblical events, the new year.
Time is likewise central to our existence. Our lives have a beginning and an end; what happens in the middle is what we make it, given the resources we are born into or develop. We do not know when we will die nor what happens to us afterward. We know, though, what happens when others die. We grieve our loss.
We lament and experience stages of pain and eventual relative acceptance.
At this time of year, as we gather with families and in our congregations and communities, there are countless obligations placed upon us. Our tradition tells us that we accept these obligations willingly and with openness. Our tshuva may be painful or involve humbling ourselves to make amends with those we have harmed, but we do this to improve ourselves, our relationships and our world.
In some interpretations, this is when our personal fate will be determined. But our attention naturally turns also to those around us. Who will be at the table this Rosh Hashana and not next? Whose presence do we miss even more keenly at this time of year than on an average day?
We are reminded now not to take for granted any of those we love. This is something we should certainly commit to carrying with us throughout the year. The presence of loving family and friends is a joy that we can easily forget to appreciate and we must remember to value these moments.
We should also be reminded of the presence of loved ones in a different, more ordinary sense. Perhaps there has never been a society more distracted than our own. The most obvious distraction is our digital devices, which can remove us from the presence of those we love even as we sit across from them at a table. Other distractions have been around longer – worries about work or some other aspect of our lives; obsessions and addictions; the myriad things that can take us away from what is truly most important in our lives.
As we mark the High Holidays and the start of a new year, let us be thankful for the presence of those around us, and let us try to be as present as possible in return.