Rosh Hashanah – literally the “Head of the Year” – began at sundown on September 25. This is the Jewish New Year’s Day. Unlike the Western tradition of New Year’s Day which often includes sleeping late after too much partying on New Year’s Eve, Rosh Hashanah is a somber day. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, when God looks through the past year and sees what each person has done, both the good and the bad, and inscribes the names of those who are completely righteous in the Book of Life and the names of the completely evil in the Book of Death. The fate of those who are not completely righteous or wholly evil – that is, almost everyone – is suspended for ten days. The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashana is “Shanah Tovah” – “Good year.” This is an abbreviated form of “Leshana tovah tikatev v’tichatem” – “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
In traditional Jewish teaching, the fate of each person for the coming year is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. In the intervening time, during the Days of Awe, one has the opportunity to repent, to change so that even if one had been evil in the past year, there is the possibility of forgiveness. One can still be inscribed and sealed in the Book Life.
The emphasis during the Days of Awe is on repentance, prayer, and charity. These are the ways that one can turn back to God, be forgiven and be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. God is clearly the judge, but God is also eager to forgive and restore people. No one is beyond hope.
The following prayer is said on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in many Jewish traditions.
We shall ascribe holiness to this day.For it is awesome and terrible.Your kingship is exalted upon it.Your throne is established in mercy.You are enthroned upon it in truth.In truth You are the judge,The exhorter, the all-knowing, the witness,He who inscribes and seals,Remembering all that is forgotten.You open the book of remembranceWhich proclaims itself,And the seal of each person is there.The great shofar is sounded,A still small voice is heard.The angels are dismayed,They are seized by fear and tremblingAs they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.They shall not be guiltless in Your eyesAnd all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.As a shepherd herds his flock,Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,So do You cause to pass, count, and record,Visiting the souls of all living,Decreeing the length of their days,Inscribing their judgment.On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,Who shall live and who shall die,Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,Who shall perish by water and who by fire,Who by sword and who by wild beast,Who by famine and who by thirst,Who by earthquake and who by plague,Who by strangulation and who by stoning,Who shall have rest and who shall wander,Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.For Your praise is in accordance with Your name. You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him. Should he turn, You will receive him at once. In truth You are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away. But You are King, God who lives for all eternity! There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days, no measure to the hosts of Your glory, no understanding the meaning of Your Name. Your Name is fitting unto You and You are fitting unto it, and our name has been called by Your Name. Act for the sake of Your Name and sanctify Your Name through those who sanctity Your Name.
I am struck by the somber beauty of this prayer. Note that God’s throne is “established in mercy.” Even though there is a great deal of sin and brokenness in the world, and people suffer in many ways, God’s fundamental characteristic is mercy. God is “difficult to anger.” God does not desire the death of the evildoer. God waits for the evildoer, and should he return, God will “receive him at once,” like the Father receiving the Prodigal Son. As our Jewish siblings move through the Days of Awe and remember the merciful God who calls everyone home, may we, too, remember that though we have all fallen short, God has forgiven us, and we are welcomed home whenever we turn back to God. As Christians, we see that Jesus has clearly shown us the unwavering love of God. Forgiveness and transformation are always available. There are always possibilities for blessings in the future. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.