Facing Their Destiny

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All of us face the dread of the unknown future and the fate it holds for us.

Illustration | Flash 90

For all Jews,even those defining themselves as secular, the Days of Awe – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – are one of the high points of their link to Jewish tradition. According to a survey conducted two years ago by the Jewish People Policy Institute, 27% of the Jews in Israel attend all the Rosh Hashanah synagogue services, and 67% fast on Yom Kippur.

This is first of all an expression of a bond to Jewish culture and Jewish tradition, and not necessarily a profession of faith – just as the fact that many Christians celebrate Christmas, does not necessarily attest to their religious belief and regular churchgoing.

Nevertheless, the attachment of Jews to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur cannot be taken for granted. This is not some enjoyable custom, like dipping an apple in honey, or lighting candles on Hanukkah. The synagogue is a distinctly religious domain, and, at least on the surface, prayer is a clear indicator of a belief in God. What other reason could a person have for mumbling words to an “imaginary friend?” But if so, why are these rituals practiced by so many people who resolutely assert their secular identity?

There seem to be two main reasons for their doing so. The first is simply the holiday spirit of the New Year. Very few of us don’t enjoy celebrating our birthday. It is a day that allows us to mark an annual milestone along the path of our lives, to set relatively short-term goals, and especially to check whether they have been achieved: what did we accomplish this year, as compared to what we wanted to get done? Which of our life’s goals have we managed to realize by this birthday, and which remain unfulfilled?

Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the collective – of the Jewish people; and, from the Jewish perspective, of the entire world. According to tradition, the date for Rosh Hashanah was set because it is the day on which man was created, making this the birthday of humankind. And just as thoughtful people don’t just have a party and get gifts on their birthdays, but also take the opportunity to do some soul-searching as to the extent to which they have accomplished their goals, so too is Rosh Hashanah such a time. The Creator uses this day upon which the first human being was created, and the entire human saga in its wake, in order to calculate the annual balance sheet of successes and failures, and accordingly requires each of us to draw up a similar reckoning for ourselves. This is an experience that even people who do not believe in some external entity that created the universe would nevertheless like to share.

The second factor is even more important. Even those who do not believe in a deity that determines their fate, know very well that they are not the masters of their own future and destiny. In fact, the critical issue for our destiny – life itself – is one over which we have very little control. Even people who are meticulous about their health and always drive cautiously, may fall ill and succumb to a genetic disorder, or die in a traffic accident caused by the recklessness of another driver. Our economic situation, an area where our own efforts might seem to have a greater impact, is also dependent on external variables such as the state of the global or national economy.

IN PLAIN WORDS, even those who do not believe in a specific entity, God, who oversees our destiny, understand that our fate is not in our own hands. The sense of our fragility vis-à-vis the vast universe is an experience shared by all human beings (in essence by all living creatures, although they are probably not aware of it), secular and religious alike. It is well known that in extreme crisis situations even the most ardent nonbelievers may find themselves praying – regardless of the fact that they don’t know whom they are praying to. (“There are no atheists in foxholes” became a motto in the savage fighting of World War I).

In practice, religious and secular, share a profound sense of uncertainty. Just as the religious cannot be certain that God exists, and pray only on the basis of their faith and the hope that He does exist and listens to their prayers, the secular cannot be sure that there is no God. Thus, they pray from time to time, whether when facing some specific crisis, or when they stand at the start of the new year, or at the brink of the abyss that’s there for all of us with regard to our future, both in the course of the coming year and for the rest of our lives.

The same applies to Yom Kippur. While secular Jews do not believe that they need to appease God in order to win His forgiveness, they are certainly aware that they have family members and friends whom they have hurt during the past year, so it is appropriate to apologize and try to turn over a new leaf in their relationships.

The implications of this situation go far beyond just the number of those attending services and fasting on the High Holy Days. In practice, it means that the individual experiences of religious and secular individuals are not nearly as far apart as it sometimes seems.

All of us face the dread of the unknown future and the fate it holds for us; all of use have a need to make amends with those we have hurt, and accept the apology of those who have hurt us. We all have the same need for a periodic spiritual reckoning. The religious simply attach a clear address to all these feelings – God. But our experiences as human beings and the needs they produce are not essentially different. When seriously ill, a secular person may often feel a need to pray. A religious person will not just pray, but will also make sure to be treated by the very best physicians, just like the secular patient in the next bed.

Perhaps this realization can help us better understand what the other person needs and feels throughout the year. What seems to be the polarization between the religious and the secular can give way to the understanding that all of us are located somewhere on the spectrum between belief and non-belief; it’s just the dosage that’s different.

A good year to all!

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post