Parashat Ha’azinu opens with Moses calling heaven as witness and proclaiming God’s glory. He next draws a striking and disturbing contrast between God and Israel:
 The Rock! — His deeds are perfect,Yea, all His ways are just;A faithful God, never false,True and upright is He. Children unworthy of Him—That crooked, perverse generation—Their baseness has played Him false. (Deuteronomy 32:4,5)
God is all-perfect and Israel is utterly perverse. Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom haDin (Judgment Day) and the machzor (High Holy Day prayer book), particularly on Yom Kippur, will riff on our imperfection, sins, transgressions, iniquity, and wrongdoing — in contrast with God who is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7—
…compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity, transgression and sin…
That verse continues (though this part does not appear in the machzor), “…yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.” The God of the machzor is compassionate and forgiving, to be sure, but also judging and punishing.
Much of the High Holy Day liturgy is difficult for me to digest and challenging for me to use spiritually for several reasons. First, the God I believe in is not a cosmic being who sits in judgment and clobbers those who step out of line; I don’t believe the universe works that way. Second, while the invitation to engage in introspection is all to the good, I am troubled by liturgy that encourages us to see ourselves as brimming with sinfulness. I doubt this inspires change in many people. Third, this formulation of God as “Judge and Jury” probably derives from a human proclivity to be judgmental, and serves to encourage (if not engender) a judgmental mindset. Put another way: Long ago people, as judgmental then as we are today, envisioned God as a cosmic judge from whom they learned that just as God judges us, so we are justified in judging one another. The machzor emphasizes again and again that God is compassionate and forgiving — that, too, is a fundamental theme of the High Holy Day liturgy and a role model for us. Yet in the end, the image of God as judge, jury, and dispenser of punishment doesn’t work very well either as motivation to change or to facilitate a spiritual experience of renewal. Therefore, I need to do a great deal of re-framing and re-interpretation in order to use the liturgy of the machzor spiritually.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal, a time to re-engage with the best within us, the parts of ourselves we treasure most but perhaps have lain dormant for a while: our compassion, goodness, generosity, patience, kindness, and humor. A year flies by so fast. Some of our best intentions of the past year flew away too. We are “works in progress” and Rosh Hashanah reminds us that opportunities abound to become who we were meant to be, to shape ourselves into the best versions of ourselves, to find fulfillment in the goodness within each of us. Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to meet ourselves again, affirm what is good in us, recognize where we can improve, and reach to be even better.
I hope to provide some examples in the coming week of how I attempt to reframe and reinterpret the High Holy Day liturgy, but first I want to lay groundwork with Psalm 15 because, like much of the High Holy Day liturgy, it can be read through two starkly different lenses. I hope that this example will serve as a model or template.
Psalm 15 is composed of only five verses, yet there is a world of either guilt or encouragement locked in those verses, depending upon how you read it. Here is the psalm in translation:
One way to read Psalm 15 is that it is the description of the ideal human being, a bulleted list of the attributes we must possess to please God. If we miss the mark (the word for sin in Hebrew, chait, means to “miss the mark”) then we will stumble, we will be shaken — bad things will happen in our lives. Miss a step, and you’re out of God’s good graces. Watch out — the boom will be lowered.
Happily, this is not the only way to read the psalm. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b - 24a) offers Psalm 15 as one of several condensations of all 613 mitzvot, but notice that there’s nothing about ritual or sacrifice or shabbat observance or holy days here — all of which surely figure prominently in the 613. Rather, the psalm speaks of ethical concerns and specifically mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro; that is to say, values and behaviors that pertain to our relationships with other people.
I want to suggest that Psalm 15 is a sampling of God’s musar (God’s ethics). These are traits God prizes: honestly, decency, and loyalty. This is religious humanism at its best. Viewed from this perspective, what might we do with Psalm 15? We might consider this God’s “to-do list” for us. I make a lot of to-do lists for myself. The first thing I do is check to see what I’ve already accomplished. When we read Psalm 15 we might ask ourselves: Which of these have I accomplished? On which am I making progress? We don’t have to master everything on the list at once, but the list affords us the opportunity to take stock and set goals for ourselves. Taking stock and setting personal spiritual goals is the quintessence of Rosh Hashanah.
Read this way, the God of Psalm 15 is not a punishing judge, noting our every transgression, but instead an encouraging and appreciative teacher who revels in her students’ efforts and progress.
The season of renewal is upon us, a time to celebrate the opportunities the coming year holds out to us to deepen, enrich, and elevate our lives by improving ourselves. I wish you and yours a shanah tovah u’metukah, a sweet new year of possibility and blessing.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman