By Laura Seymour
The High Holy Days are here, and the theme is repentance. It is a hard topic for children, but it is also hard for adults, especially today.
Why say “especially today?” We are living in a time when sin isn’t taken quite as seriously. Even some murderers “get out of jail free.” (The Torah does have lots on witnesses and responsibilities, etc. but it is a big difference from our system today.)
The Tanach is filled with stories of sinning and, if you read carefully, they are more than great stories — they have lessons for us today. We continue to repeat many of the same sins, but today we often don’t have the same sense of right and wrong. Are morals and values situational? Can we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong?
Judaism says God has told us through the commandments what is right and wrong. Many of the commandments are between us and God (we may not understand the why), and on Yom Kippur we apologize to God. However, there are many, many mitzvot that tell us how to treat others. We must take the biblical mitzvot and put them into words today so that we may understand if, and how, we are “sinning,” This is the time to do this.
Here is a modern interpretation of Unetaneh Tokef, one of the important prayers we say on the holidays. It’s a brave and sensitive attempt to relate the references to modern conditions of life, made by the rabbis who compiled the “Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” issued by the Rabbinical Assembly of New York. It is well worth quoting:
When we really begin a new year it is decided,
And when we actually repent it is determined:
Who shall be truly alive and who shall merely exist;
Who shall be happy and who shall be miserable;
Who shall attain fulfillment in his days
And who shall not attain fulfillment in his days;
Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition
And who shall be overcome by the waters of failure;
Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy
And who shall be torn by the wild beast of resentment;
Who shall hunger for companionship
And who shall thirst for approval;
Who shall be shattered by the earthquake of social change
And who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity;
Who shall be strangled by insecurity
And who shall be stoned into submission;
Who shall be content with his lot
And who shall wander in search of satisfaction;
Who shall be serene and who shall be distraught;
Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted with anxiety;
Who shall be poor in his own eyes
And who shall be rich in tranquility;
Who shall be brought low with futility
And who shall be exalted through achievement.
But repentance, prayer and good deeds have the power to change the character of our lives.
Let us resolve to repent, to pray and to do good deeds so that we may begin a truly new year.
Laura Seymour is director of Jewish life and learning and director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center of Dallas.