Berosh hashanah yikatevun u've'yom tzom kippur yekhatemun.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Judaism believes in doors—or, in the metaphor of the High Holy Days, gates. When it comes to our religious and ethical lives—and, as I’ll argue below, our political lives—there is a time when the gates are open, when we are coming to conclusions about who we’re going to be and what we’re going to do, and there’s a time when the gates close, and decisions are set in motion, and they start to produce real consequences in the world.
These consequences, in Jewish understanding, extend beyond ourselves. This is illustrated in the High Holy Days Unetaneh Tokef prayer, for example, where we acknowledge the urgency of teshuvah (repentance and self-correction) by articulating the possible repercussions of our personal commitments and actions, asking:
who shall live on, and who shall die,
whose death is timely, and whose is not,
who dies by fire, and who shall be drowned,
who by the sword, and who by the beast,
who by hunger, and who by thirst,
who by an earthquake, who by a plague,
who shall be strangled, and who shall be stoned,
who dwells in peace, and who is uprooted,
who shall live safely, and who shall be harmed,
whose life is tranquil, and whose is tormented,
who shall be poor, and who shall be rich,
who shall be humbled, and who is raised up?
When I recite this prayer, I recognize that most of these fates will probably not be mine in the coming year. And yet each of these fates will definitely reach some people in the world. Some people will die in an earthquake, or of hunger, or by a plague, even if I don’t. Even if I am so fortunate as to keep my job and my good life, some other people will nonetheless be in poverty or will experience torment. And the implication of this prayer is that those fates—not just my own—are my responsibility. My teshuvah is urgent because the fate of other people rests to some extent on my actions, actions that can be either righteous or unrighteous, just or unjust, selfish or generous, lazy or determined. And there’s also the possibility of inaction, whether motivated by cynicism or confusion or disappointment—and that has serious consequences, too.
On Rosh Hashanah we contemplate this. And Yom Kippur reminds us that we can’t contemplate forever.
There is, of course, an analogy sitting right in front of us. This is the fall of 2016, and it’s the most consequential election season of my life thus far. (May there never be another one so consequential.) We’re now in a period of contemplation, and lots of talking and writing, too—pundits and polls and newspapers are in a continuous state of discussion, and so are many of us regular citizens. But this time of decision-making is not infinite.
On Tuesday, November 8th, the gates will be closed, and some fates will be sealed.
It’s worth saying again: on Tuesday, November 8th, some fates will be sealed. Perhaps your fate will not be much affected. But the fates of the most vulnerable do in fact hang in the balance. I’m talking about everyone from a desperate Syrian refugee or a young incarcerated person locked for months in solitary confinement to a rural woman needing access to personal healthcare or a black man facing a jumpy police officer one night or a kid growing up in a neighborhood with undrinkable water. I’m talking about a transgender person whose civil rights are in question, a person who wants to immigrate to this country and contribute, a retiree who can’t survive—literally can’t survive—without Social Security. Their fates, and many others, will have been sealed on November 8th. They will have been sealed by the actions of voters like me and (I hope) like you. And they will have been sealed by the inaction of non-voters.
There’s a Midrashic story (from Vayikra Rabbah) about a boat full of people. Some of those people notice that one man is drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat, and they all protest, but he responds that he’s only drilling under his own seat, so what business is it of theirs? The rest of the people, of course, hasten to remind him that his hole will flood the boat for everyone. This is the boat we’re all in right now.
But back to gates. In Judaism we believe in doorways and gates because we recognize that there are thresholds, and that thresholds matter. We can talk all we want on this side of the gates. But at some point we’re on the other side, and we’re left with consequences, consequences that radiate well beyond us.
The gates are closing.
(translations from the Kol Haneshamah High Holy Day Makhzor)
David Ebenbach is the author of The Artist’s Torah, a spiritual guide to the creative process; plus three books of short stories, including, most recently, Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House); a novel; and two books of poetry. With a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches literature and creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.