During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, Jews around the world say the following prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
who shall perish 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 plague;
who by strangling and who by stoning;
who shall be secure and who shall be driven;
who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled;
who shall be poor and who shall be rich;
who shall be humbled and who exalted.
But repentance, prayer, and charity
temper judgment’s severe decree.
Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish new year; Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, arrives the following week. And in this brief block of time… wow. According to these lines, our lifespan, physical and mental health, internal mindset, financial security, and success hang in the balance. These several days heave with power. It’s enough to freeze an anxious soul like me, leaving me in bed all day, or sitting in a chair in my pajamas, unable to face showering (what if the decree kicks in and makes me trip and bang my head on the bathroom floor?!) or leaving my home to brave potential car crashes or maniacs in the street.
Good thing I don’t take these words literally. I’ve seen too many fabulous people die young, suffer with illness, face horrifying accidents, struggle with poverty, and be humbled far beneath the level any human being should endure. The cases I’ve seen could not have happened because these unlucky souls did not repent, pray, or donate well enough to stave off ultimate judgment against them. No God who is remotely kindhearted, let alone infinitely loving, could possibly work that way.
Of course, I’ve never been the people I’m thinking about, never dwelled inside their minds. It’s possible that situations I found chilling were positive for them on some mystical level that’s inaccessible to me: got them perceiving in ways that made them grow in fabulous ways. It’s not my place to sit here and say that someone else was ill or poor or horrifically humbled in an unfair way, in an absolute sense. All I see is this world, from my perspective. And all I can say is, from that perspective, the Unetaneh Tokef’s words do not ring true.
Still, I’m quite open to the common idea that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the time in between carry special spiritual power. We are currently in the Jewish month of Elul, which immediately precedes these high holidays, when observant Jews prepare for them by repenting for their sins against God and asking forgiveness of fellow humans they might have wronged.
Now, I do crappy things to people all the time, and I usually apologize right away. This tends to involve snapping at the people who love me most, and, this month, I am going to make a special point of talking to them, making sure that we’re still deep friends going forward. I mean, I know that we are, but there’s a certain beauty in cementing that closeness, and letting them know that I realize I have a tendency to let my frustrations out on the few people I know will always love me regardless. In past years, I have apologized to them during this time, and we have laughed about it, and it was one of those pure, good things that I’d recommend to anyone who can relate to this particular plight.
I never did this as a child; I’d never heard of doing it. I got the idea from the Lubavitcher Hasidim I lived among while researching my book about them. During the month of Elul, so many of them buzzed about these apologies, and someone even called me up to ask forgiveness because she thought she had insulted me. Though I didn’t become an observant Jew by anyone’s standards during that year, I sure picked up some ideas and practices that continue to enrich my life.
Have I sinned against God? I’m not sure I believe in the sort of God traditional Judaism puts forth. Then again, I’m not sure I don’t believe in it, and I sure do want some sort of mystical truth and power to infuse our world with caring, love, and deep respect for the importance of each unique human consciousness. So I’ll ask myself: If I did believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God, would I believe I have sinned against it?
The answer is clear: Yes. As a nonobservant Jew, I don’t worry about keeping kosher, or observing the Sabbath (called “Shabbos” by most Hasidim I know), or other intricacies of Jewish law. But the larger, more universal stuff concerns me greatly. I waste time. For someone who worries constantly about time running out at the end of my life, boy do I toss aside precious hours on nonsense: sitting around my apartment when I could be outside enjoying the breeze; getting lazy and avoiding activities because I don’t feel like pushing myself there; putting work off until the last minute, creating horrifying hours of miserable industry when, if I had just done a little at a time, it all would have been easily doable, and possibly even interesting.
I worry so much about dying, and yet I’m in the midst of life, health and strength intact, and, so often, I don’t squeeze the beauty out of this gift. God, if you’re there, I’m so sorry: I have sinned against you.
And what about active badness: do I promote negativity in the world, thus sinning against any God whose efforts and love might be powering it all? It’s easy for me to brush that question off. I’m rarely mean, never physically violent. I tend to be super-honest: I remember once, in fourth grade, returning $5 my teacher had loaned me on a trip — months after the fact, because she had been out caring for her gravely ill son. She laughed and accepted it, and told me she hoped I would always be so honest.
On the whole, I’m still quite honest, but my energy sometimes stinks. I hold grudges. The thought of certain people makes me fume. It’s a tiny group: I’ve just been counting them, and came up with only a handful, though I’m guessing a few more would pop into my head if I focused on this question. But God forbid any of them should approach me, in any way. They’ve all wronged me, in one way or another, and that’s all I think about when they come around.
Thing is, most of these people don’t much care about me, and, in some cases, probably don’t ever think about me. My anger towards them is abominable. Not for them — what do they care; they don’t know the contents of my mind. It’s an abomination against myself, and against the God who loves me if it actually exists (yes, I know “it” is awkward and bizarre here, but I just can’t imagine giving God any kind of gender, and I don’t want to get all politically correct and trot out new pronouns like “zhe,” so I am where I am… stuck with “it” for now).
Fairly often, I stew in this sort of poisonous emotion, and I must apologize, to myself, and to whatever God might wish I could brush past all that and embrace whatever joy might be lurking behind the indignation I unfortunately tend to feel.
I could end this essay here, but that is so not me, because I haven’t asked God for a thing. I’m a greedy little creature: I’m the first to admit it. If I get a chance to ask for something — if I have even an inkling that I have an audience who might be able to help me out — you can be sure I’ll try, hands open wide, hoping. If I’m going to write an essay about the holiest time of the year, a time when some say the communication lines between God and human beings are more open than usual, you can bet all you have that I won’t forget to make some requests. It’s God, right? How can it be mad? It knows how I am.
I so hope there is a God and that it listens — crazy and simplistically wish-fulfilling as that may sound — because, in some ways, I am miserable. I need help. Badly, even desperately. And I have the sense that some kind of small tweak to the way things are going could shift it all.
First, let me say that I’m profoundly grateful for so much. As far as I can tell, I’m very healthy. My body is whole and vibrant, even if it’s way too short. (I’m not complaining about the height, I swear; I just felt the need to throw that in.) I have people who love me very much — so much that they tolerate my snippiness. I’m able to focus largely on the pursuits and issues that drive me, and live fairly comfortably while doing so. So my first prayer is simple: may all this continue, forever. Yes, forever as in forever, God, because you know how I feel about death. The dynamics may change radically at some point, but please, please, let my safety, freedom, and active awareness thrive into eternity.
So, God, I’m not sure how to move from this onto my other requests — or how to frame them to make them seem rich and important enough that you will consider them. But here goes. Some might believe I’m grabby and demanding. Others might say I deserve to feel content, and that, if I’m as unhappy as I say (and, if anything, it’s worse than I say; I’m holding back a bit because I don’t want to seem like a total downer) I should by all means express my desires. Clearly, I align with the latter camp.
God, I do not feel embraced by your world. There is no real home for me here. I have not found my niche, my people, or my voice. Often, I walk around my city, notice buildings that house various groups, and wonder if I could feel comfortable there. And I’ve tried attending various events — oh, have I tried. Nothing against anyone: I usually have a wonderful time, in a way.
But I never feel at home. As I seek you, God, I usually find that groups are either too focused on rules that seem nitty-gritty and not part of my path (like Orthodox and other highly observant Jews) or unconcerned with ultimate spiritual questions. And if you tell me I should check out the Orthodox communities anyhow — that they do represent my path even though I don’t see that now — I’ll refer you to my deep-seated aversion to marriage (for myself, not for others) and my sense, since I was maybe five years old, of being outside traditional gender expectations. Look at my threads, God: they’d suit a nine-year-old boy quite well. That’s how I see myself; that’s how I feel at ease.
So we don’t even have to get into my inherent sense of adventure, of wanting to relish all the various delights this world has to offer, even if they’re not deemed kosher — though, between you and me, that’s a huge factor as well. Sex is not for me, God; all those movies, books, and TV shows about romance interest me about as much as a documentary on the life and times of one doorknob, stuck outside an apartment that no one enters. Let me at least have my food, my glorious, wonderful food, even if it’s not deemed kosher. Exploring restaurants wherever I go is a spiritual pleasure for me, allowing me to try the sensations and meet the souls that thrive in your universe.
How presumptuous is it to ask for a spiritual home for someone like me — someplace where I could feel like I’m not just visiting and humoring everyone’s desire to partner up and embrace rules that would kill my sense of joy? Can I find someplace that asks the ultimate mystical questions and provides me with the peace I so desperately need around them? Is there anywhere I could feel, at least somewhat, like one of the bunch?
I know there are plenty of liberal communities focused on politics and such, but, you know what, God: politics really doesn’t move me. What moves me is… get this… the possibility of You. I even capitalized “You” like those frummie types would, just to emphasize how strongly I feel.
I’ve searched for you, and have had serious trouble with my quest. You’re a slick, tricky, deeply mysterious character, God — if you’re an actual being and not just a widespread figment of the human imagination. And I sure hope you exist beyond these human minds. Or even within those minds, but as a “real” entity that transcends the imagination. Or… this is getting complicated. But you know what I mean, I hope, being God and all. I want some kind of spirituality to exist, something beyond the seeming hopelessness of many human lives: living, failing multiple times, maybe triumphing every once in a while, aging, dying, the end.
God, would it be possible for you to show me that you’re here, somehow? I’m sure that “here” is a maddeningly simplistic concept in this context, but I can’t help it: I’m just me and you’re, you know, God. Being God, you must know just how much I can understand, take in, and handle. You know my main issues, I’m sure. Show me that our human souls will last beyond these lives that seem to encompass every edge of reality. Show me that it all goes deeper and longer, that it reaches into infinity, and maybe even beyond. You’re beyond even infinity, aren’t you, God? Show yourself, then, in a way that makes sense to me, in a way that will strike even me, with my limited brain and hysterical tendencies, as the unequivocal truth.
I’m not saying you should answer all my questions: I’ve heard that you love tantalizing and teasing us humans with mystery. But you should know that my current level of unknown is too much for me. I’m languishing in fear and anxiety. Might you be willing to slide down to my level and throw me a piece of peace — something I can latch onto and use as I move through this horribly confusing life? My gratitude would be immense, even infinite — though I know you reach beyond even infinity and do not need gratitude from a spineless slug who just ate fudge for breakfast.
I’d rather conclude on a note of achievement than of sluggishness. Would you believe that I used to achieve things? Of course you would, God; I’m told you are beyond time, so, from your perspective, my achievements are still a part of me.
I’m an overachiever who no longer achieves. And I know that “achievement” is a sticky concept in this world you’ve allowed us humans to spin. I also know that my definition of it would strike many as narrow, maybe even outrageous. My mother is aghast that I don’t feel successful. “But what about X? What about Y? Why doesn’t Z make you feel good?” she asked me, and I could tell she genuinely thought these things should carry me through.
Her point makes rational sense, but I can’t embrace it, and the whole situation chills me. Honestly, there’s one particular goal that obsesses me, and I’ve come so close so many times, in situations that turned so sour, that, at the moment, I can’t bear to forge ahead with my desire. And that’s my fault. God, I know that your world is challenging by design and even by definition, and I need to push forward.
I managed this form of success once, though not in ideal circumstances. But it was too long ago. Remember, God: I am bound by time. I can only feel buoyed by one thing for so long.
And here’s what it comes down to: I feel bitter that my recent projects haven’t yet fulfilled this aspiration. I’m angry at the world — your world, God. For that matter, I’m angry at myself for caring so much when I tell myself I’m a free spirit who creates my own values. It’s small but deep proof of how awry your world has gone, God. Like everything in this great universe, I am a reflection of you… and I am a bundle of sad contradiction.
Of course, you don’t need support or goodwill from the likes of me. I guess what I’m saying is this: I am one of your creations, and I feel hopeless and helpless all too often — not just because of death, time, and the inevitabilities of life, but also because, even beyond those inevitabilities, I feel stiff with the sense that I just don’t mesh with the rest of your world: that something deep within me keeps me from thriving anywhere in this vast arena of teeming activity.
I know this is getting intimate and possibly disturbing. But, God, if I’m going to pray, I will do it with all my edge, with my deepest feeling and energy. So here’s what I’ll tell you, for whatever it might mean to your transcendent mind: The way I feel now, I can’t be giving. I can’t wish others well with nearly the strength or the love that I’d hope for. I simmer with jealousy, and even, once in a while, with rage.
On the one hand, God, I know that your world is enormous, and I am but a speck within it. On the other, I’m told that you value every soul that roams in your limitless territory — and that every single soul has a mission.
I’ll give it to you straight, God: I’m too hurt to perform my mission, whatever it might be, to the best of my ability. If something tilted just a bit — perhaps if you made it tilt with your subtle yet omnipotent hand — I know I would feel much more warmly towards everyone and everything. The shift could involve the external world, my internal mindset, or some magical combination of the two. Secure in the knowledge that I am moving ahead, I could help others do likewise with joy and affection.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling. God, so many of the human beings you’ve crafted feel shunned and distracted from the goals they were born to pursue. The world has wounded them, and they’re too demoralized to climb up and show other souls their gifts and their passions. They’re frozen in a deep sense of failure.
So, God, here’s my final prayer, for now (you know I’m greedy enough to come back with more at some point): May all the souls of your earth feel wanted and successful — whatever success might mean to them. Failure might be instructive up to a certain point, God: I’ll give you that possibility. But our current world seems to humble the many and exalt the few. I just don’t see a problem with tweaking the system a bit, so all of us can feel that our special sparks are glorified, sanctified, and put to good use.
If we all felt worthy, we’d have more kindness, less violence, and generosity where envy currently rages. And God, I’m sure you have marvelous reasons for letting things fester in their current state, but I humbly suggest that it’s time to create a better way.
I know that I’m just me and you’re, um, God. These are my thoughts, and I had the strange impression that you might find them interesting.
Thank you for your time, God. I look forward to hearing from you. I’m not holding my breath, but I do hold out hope.