The Ten Days of Repentance, culminating with Yom Kippur, are a time to reflect on the past, but in the context of looking forward to a more meaningful future.
Just before this past Rosh Hashana 5778, Israel’s national radio broadcast a program with a review of people who had died in the past year, what their contribution was and why they are missed. This included Helmut Kohl, Chuck Berry, Mary Tyler Moore, Roger Moore, and Roger Ailes. Subsequent articles with similar lists were published mentioning others. Since it’s the Jewish New Year, some listed Jews who had died in specific such as entertainers Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles and Leonard Cohen, along with Simone Veil (Holocaust survivor and activist), Vera Rubin (scientist), Ruth Gruber (journalist) and Henry Heimlich (of the lifesaving Heimlich Maneuver). This seems to be an annual rite, whether marking the end of the biblical Jewish year, or the secular calendar year.
As I was listening to the broadcast I began to think that as much as these people may be missed and may have made a significant contribution; to Jewish life, life in Israel, or in the rest of the world, looking back is not the message of this High Holiday season.
These 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, are filled with deep prayer, introspection and teshuvah, or repentance, and atonement for past sins. It’s a time to reflect on the past, but in the context of looking forward to a more meaningful future. Jews turn within to address and reflect upon spiritual and personal shortcomings, to repair relationships with one other, and strengthen our relationship with God. Looking back at the past year is not about just listing shortcomings, but about truly making amends and genuine repentance so as to be substantially better in the coming year.
So as much as the New Year may provide a milestone and opportunity to reflect on the past year, the message of this season is not to look back on the past year with nostalgia, but rather how we will behave and do better in all our relationships and behaviors during the coming year. For that reason I found the listing of people who have died, and recognized for doing something in the past, to be particularly out of place.
This made me think that while it may be nice to be recognized posthumously for things done in one’s lifetime, the real list that should be published is a list that still in the making. It’s a list of our behaviors and merits in the coming year, and how God Himself views these. Rather than looking back on who influenced our past, we are charged with looking forward and making positive impact in the future; impacting ourselves and others with whom we interact, and even those who may not know us personally but for whom we are each in some way an example even indirectly.
Jewish faith and liturgy reference a similar list most vividly at this season: who will be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Uniquely Observed by Jews But Relevant to All
While this season is uniquely observed by Jews, there’s a growing trend among Christians to learn about and understand the Jewish roots of Christianity. Because of this, days such as Rosh Hashana – the first day of the seventh month of the biblical year, the month of Tishrei – have relevance to a growing number of non-Jews. Some even observe the festivals, holidays, and fast days. While it’s a biblical obligation among Jews, the biblical holidays and calendar certainly offer a message that is relevant and fitting for everybody regardless of their faith, or lack thereof.
So at this season of prayer, introspection, and repentance, I would like to challenge you to begin to make a list on which you will be included for the coming year. How will you behave in your relationships with God, and with the people with whom you interact? How will your behaviors be viewed by people you know or may not know, and how will these be meaningful examples to them? Who will you influence and how will you influence these people for good? What message through your actions and behavior will influence children in your care, people with whom you associate, and even your presence through things as impersonal as social media?
Of course the true opposite of the list of people who died in the past year is a list of the people who will be born in the coming year. It’s too early to tell who among those born this year will make an influence so that at the end of their life, decades from now, through their actions they will merit being listed among those who died and made an impact.
But indeed there will be people born this year with whom you will interact and be an example to in the coming years, and have the means to influence their actions, their thoughts, and their behaviors for a positive outcome. This will provide a basis for their legacy, and yours, and how you do this in the coming year will make it to the list to the One who matters.