Judgment and dread, tempered with hope

By Herschel Chait

UHC treasurer Herschel Chait contributed these thoughts on the High Holy Days for the September 2013 edition of Hadashot.

Justifiably, the High Holidays are considered a period of judgment and dread. This is reflected in our liturgy where we read: “This is the day of judgment! For even the hosts of heavens are judgment, and all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before you. As the shepherd seeks out his flock and makes the sheep pass under his staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life and decreeiing its destiny (emphasis added).” This is followed a litany of positive and negative outcomes.

At the s e time, it can be a period of hope, and I find this hope in the Torah reading, for the morning of Yorn Kippur. The traditional Torah reading comes from Leviticus Chapter 16 which describes the Yorn Kippur service in the Temple. In the Reform tradition, the Torah reading is taken, in bits and pieces, from the Torah portion of Netzavim in the book of Deuteronomy. This encouraged me to look at the Netzavim Torah portion in its totality and to find hope in parts which we do not read.

In this Torah portion, Moses brings the Israelites together to enter into a covenant in which they follow God’s laws and precepts and God establishes a special relationship with the Israelites. Moses then recognizes that there may come a time when an individual, a family or a tribe will depart from God’s will and, ” … will fancy himself immune, thinking ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart….” (Deut. 29:18).

The promised consequence of punishments concludes with, “The Lord uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land….” (Deut. 29:27).

Just as there is a prediction of retribution for abandoning God, the Torah portion tells us of the opportunity for repentance and God’s boundless kindness in not only accepting our repentance, but in assisting in it. We are told, ” … and you return to the Lord your God … then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.” (Deut. 30:2-3). But, returning to God is no easy task; we need help to do so. Therefore God promises, “Then the Lord your God will open your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.” (Deut. 30:6) This is a profoundly hopeful and even joyous message: Even after being mustered, numbered, considered and found wanting, God will nonetheless accept us in repentance (Teshuvah) and even assist in the process.

In the Yorm Kippur liturgy, in all traditions, after acknowledging God’s judgment, we say, “But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” What I have noticed in our congregation is that these words are said in a rather matter-of-fact manner with little emotion or emphasis. Yet, they lie at the heart of the Y om Kippur service. Yes, we face and acknowledge the dread of God’s judgment. At the same time, as Moses has told us, there is hope; God will take us back, and God will help us to come back. Just as the words of God’s judgment deserve to be said with fear and trepidation, the words of hope should be said joyously.

One of the tasks of the High Holiday season is to balance the dread of judgment with hope that comes from repentance, prayer, and charity.

With that thought, I wish you all a happy and joyous new year.

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