Liberating Life

The High Holidays focus on death so that we may renew our lives.

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The encounter with nonexistence is set off by the awareness of cre­ation. Whatever is born, dies. By tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the  "birthday" of the world or of humanity This birthday--that is, New Year's Day--is not the occasion for a party to wipe out the passage of time in the oblivion of celebration but a time for taking stock. The possibility of non-being leads one to the questions: What is it all worth? What has been accomplished? By what merit does it still stand?


The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies focus on creation and on God as Creator and Ruler of the universe. "To say of the world that it is created is to say that it is not its own ground but proceeds from a will and a plan beyond itself... . [To say it is not created is to say that] the world at every moment is the last word about itself and measuredby nothing but itself. "

In Jewish tradition, creation also implies the goodness of the world: "And God saw everything that God had made and, behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). In other words, the controversy over whether the world is created is less a theological argument than a moral one: The concept of creation teaches that this is a world of divine purpose, a universe of value and meaning. Human beings can be judged by the standard of creation. Are they acting in conso­nance with the fact that this is a universe with value, purpose and meaning?

From the combined themes of death and of judgment comes the central image underlying the Days of Awe: the trial. Jews envision a trial in which the individual stands before the One who knows all. One's life is placed on the balance scales. A thorough assessment is made: Is my life contributing to the balance of life? Or does the net effect of my actions tilt the scale toward death? My life is being weighed; I am on trial for my life. Who shall live and who shall die? This image jolts each person into a heightened awareness of the fragil­ity of life. This question poses the deeper issue: If life ended now, would it have been worthwhile? Is one aware and grateful for the miracle of daily existence?

The trial image captures the sense of one's life being in someone else's hands. The shofar of Rosh Hashanah proclaims that the Judge before whom there is no hiding is now sitting on the bench. Sharp­ened self-awareness, candid self-judgment, and guilt are activated by the possibility that a death sentence may be handed down. Like standing before a firing squad, a trial for life wonderfully concentrates the mind.

Appreciating Life

Then, the High Holy Days move to meet the third challenge of mor­tality--to harness death into a force for life. On Yom Kippur, Jews enact death by denying themselves the normal human pleasures. It is not a morbid experience, however, because this encounter with death is in the service of life. The true goal is a new appreciation of life.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).