Monday, October 03, 2016

An accounting and a new beginning

Yesterday evening the two-day long Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, began. J.J. Goldberg at the Jewish Daily Forward sets the day's observances in the context of this strange and awful moment.

‘Today the world is born” — Hayom harat olam. These are among the most electric words in all of Jewish sacred liturgy. They’re recited by the congregation immediately after the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, at midday on the New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah.

The words are especially electric this year, because they bring home the fraught reality of the crossroads we’ve come to. Most of us, I suppose, take the image of Rosh Hashanah as “birthday of the world” to be a sort of metaphor. It sums up the spirit of reset and renewal that marks this season of repentance. It’s not literally the anniversary of the Big Bang. This year, though, the words take on a frighteningly literal meaning. We may not know exactly how or when the world was born. But we’re beginning to get a pretty good idea of when and how it can die.

We’ve been hearing the warnings for decades, but we’ve mostly ignored them. It all seemed too fantastical, the supposed consequences too far in the future, the preventive measures too expensive. Now the future is here: ice caps disappearing, glaciers melting, sea levels rising, coastal communities flooding. Strange tropical pests and diseases migrating northward, following the changing climate. Thousand-year monster storms happening yearly. Blizzards in Georgia, biblical floods in lower Manhattan, California in permanent drought. And we’ve barely begun.

... Rosh Hashanah, which begins on the evening of October 2, is a day for reflection and introspection, for looking around and within ourselves and taking an accounting. Yom Kippur, which comes 10 days later, is the day we sum up our accounting, take a deep look at our community and society and raise our voices in a plea to avert the evil decree that might be coming as a consequence of our actions. Election Day comes four weeks after that. Not in living memory has an election been so consequential. The sequence — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Election Day — is a frequent source of wry jokes and overwrought sermons. This year it’s no joke.

... In plain language, our actions today determine our fate tomorrow, along with the fates of the earth and all its creatures who stand alongside us in spirit. Our readings for the rest of the day, indeed for the Ten Days of Awe, consist largely of steps on the road to repentance: acknowledgment that we must do better, prayers for the strength and wisdom to do what’s right and hope that our fate proves to be better than we fear we might deserve. ... We are all accountable as one body, all of humankind, indeed all the world’s creatures. In the final accounting our separate clans, tribes and nations don’t matter.

In large part our future depends on events beyond our control, originating in the vast, unknowable, infinite space that we can never fully understand. In the end, though, our fate is ours to decide. We are the creatures of the earth. All of us in our synagogues, churches and mosques, in our gleaming towers and squalid hovels, in our nests in the disappearing forests and our lairs beneath the warming, rising seas.

On this day each year we stand together in judgment and face the consequences for the actions we took during all our yesterdays. ...

While we can still act, we need not be constrained by what we have done yesterday. We will suffer what we cannot change, but there is still tomorrow.

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