It is no wonder that the rabbis arranged the reading of the Torah so that Nitzavim is always read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana is not only the first day of the New Year, but also the first day of the month of Tishrei. Tishrei corresponds to the astrological sign of Libra, the month symbolised by the balance. This sense of balance is emphasised by Moshe in his concluding words to the people of Israel in this week’s teaching: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life. Over the month of Tishrei ahead, we will be guided by the prayers and Torah readings selected by the rabbis to put our lives back in balance, to choose life. The highlight of this month are the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
One of the most stirring prayers recited on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, “U’nataneh Tokef”, mirrors the dichotomies in Moses’ teaching about life and death. The poet writes, “On Rosh Hashana it is written, and Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die…” Is one’s fate in God’s hands as this poem declares, or in ours, as Moses indicates?
We can read U’nataneh Tokef not as a contradiction of Moses’ teaching but a reflection on what the Torah means by “choose life”. The prayer continues, “repentance, prayer and righteous giving annul the severity of the decree.” Since death is inevitable for each of us, both Moses and the author of U’nataneh Tokef seem to be teaching something else: before one’s death, choose a good life of blessing. Over the year, the pressures we face often lead us to lose sight of our higher self, our sense of purpose, our way of connecting and helping. This last very difficult year has challenged us like none before, thrown us topsy turvy. The days ahead give us the opportunity to change the balance.
Repentance requires us to repair internal wounds and external relationships; prayer focuses us on our inner being and ultimate goals; righteous giving ensures we improve the world around us through giving of our resources. These three things are the essence of choosing a good life of blessing. We choose how we live. The metaphoric Book of Life opened at this season is not predictive as to whether one will live through the year, but prescriptive as to how one should live one’s days ahead. May the words of Moses this Shabbat open our hearts and minds for the process we undergo in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the first ten days of Tishrei, the days of awe and repentance. Repentance, prayer and giving make life worth living.
Shabbat Shalom and Tizku l’shanim rabbot!