The Year of the Pen

by | Sep 7, 2018 | Torah Thought

In services on the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, tradition requires us to recite the masterwork of prayer U-netaneh Tokef on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. These awe-filled days are times of questions. There are the spiritual questions that teshuva, repentance, demands: Who am I? Am I on the right path? Have I hurt others intentionally or unintentionally? Could I be a better version of me? How do I get to the next step? But there are also the simple, yet terrifying, existential questions of U-netaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die…. Who by hunger and who by thirst…who will be tranquil and who will be troubled…who will be brought low and who will be raised up?”

This whole season is designed to help us focus on all of these vital questions and to help pull us away from our more usual reveries: What can I do? What difference does it make? Who will step up to help? What business is it of mine? and so many more common and paralyzing questions. The Days of Awe and the U-netaneh Tokef prayer insist that we re-focus, move away from the questions of impotence and excuse and embrace the questions of change and transformation.

Surrounding the intense questions of U-netaneh Tokef is the familiar refrain, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed!” We commonly read this refrain as if God is sitting in Heaven with a large book marking who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. According to this interpretation, the book is a threat, a sword of Damacles hanging over our heads, demanding that we be good and do as we are told lest the death stroke fall as punishment. This reading is indeed terrifying, but is one I hardly find motivating. Yet, there are other ways to understand the book’s metaphor.

What if God is not the one writing the book, but rather we are the authors of our own stories? We write our own Book of Life, if you will. On Rosh Hashanah we can be the ones writing what will be for us in the new year; we can start taking the initiative to write our own story. These Days of Awe demand that we stop living our lives as if our fate is in someone else’s hands and begin taking the initiative to live the life that is meant for us. We can start by stifling the questions of angst and consternation, the questions that pretend we have no control of, or influence on, our lives. It is true that no one can know the answers to the terrible questions of U-netaneh Tokef, but that’s just the point. By recognizing the things we cannot control, we are invited to also recognize the things we can and to start doing something about them.

And there is no better year than this coming one to recognize that we hold the pen and we fill the pages. I was recently chatting with Rabbi Gila Dror of Rodef Sholom in Newport News and Rabbi Michael Panitz of Temple Israel in Norfolk. Rabbi Dror pointed out the last two letters in the Hebrew writing of the new Jewish Year, 5779, are ayin and tet. Rabbi Panitz pointed out that if you made them into a word you would have et, the Hebrew word for ‘pen.’ Therefore, this New Year 5779 could be called, “The Year of the Pen.”

As 5779, the Year of the Pen, approaches, may we all remember that on Rosh HaShanah, as we reflect on existential and spiritual questions, we hold the pen in our hand and begin writing our story for the next year. And on Yom Kippur, when we exit the Days of Awe and reenter the world with our commitments and plans at the ready, we seal our path for the year to come. May we all find fulfillment in whatever our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur practices are and may we all exit the season back on the path that God meant for us to travel.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

Rabbi Jeffrey M. Arnowitz, Congregation Beth El