0/14/2015—I used to speak at synagogue during the High Holy Days. These are the New Year holidays bookended by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nowadays, I think, what would I say?
The Days of Awe, as they are also known, are peculiar to modern Americans. We don’t think of ourselves as seriously in need of forgiveness and, anyway, who could give it? So the hopes of forgiveness change into something more conventional—in liberal Judaism, to be a better person; in orthodox Judaism, to do one more mitzvah (to begin keeping kosher would be a great start in many orthodox synagogues).
But all this has nothing to do with Biblical living. In both old and new testaments, thus for me in Torah, which is both, sin is usually not so personal. There are exceptions, like not to murder, but even these are much more fundamental than not yelling at the kids or not eating shrimp in restaurants.
The sin with which the Torah is actually concerned, whatever the context, is refusing to listen to God’s word. So, Mary is praised in the New Testament for responding to God, do with me as you will (as does Jesus). Similarly, Abram (later Abraham) is simply told to go to a land that God will show him—lech lecha—and he goes. In other contexts, the symbol of such willingness is the word hineini—here I am.
This is not the modern, here I am as what I am. The is the biblical here I am, what would you have me do?
So, the proper prayer today on Rosh Hashana is, make me ready to say hineini to you.
Oh, I know I don’t believe in a God that says things. But the spiritual context here is not one that requires a God as a being. What is required is a call—I am called and I respond hineini. Atheists too.
Now, the hard part. If I am candid, I do not want such a call. And the tradition knows this too. That is, in part, why the Book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur. When he receives the call, Jonah runs away. That is what we all do.
What if the call I received was to give up my comfortable, wonderful existence in the Mexican War Streets, where for the first time since I was 14 years old, I feel genuinely at home, and told to go to a new place—whether physically or otherwise. I like the life I have just fine.
So, the honest person prays the other prayer Jesus prayed—let this cup pass. Don’t call me. Please leave me alone.
Strangely, the trick here is to get modern people to understand that the terms of biblical life are our terms. And this has nothing, nothing!, to do with whether we “believe” in God. Abraham Lincoln received a call. People have wondered whether he believed in God. The call still took his life.