Who By Fire, Who By Water

This day is the birthday of the world; this day places all the creatures of the world in judgment.

The day is Rosh Hashanah, the New Year on the traditional Jewish calendar, which begins this coming Monday evening. The words — “This day is the birthday of the world” — will be recited at the day’s emotional climax, at midday on Tuesday, as the congregation, standing, responds to the piercing notes of the ram’s horn, calling us to remember and prepare.

Something in that moment of call and response touches us somewhere deep inside. Whatever else we may or may not carry with us from our heritage, most Jews around the world, believers and unbelievers, faithful and skeptic, will find their way into a synagogue on that day to hear the ram’s horn, recite the words and consider their judgment.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of his time and who before his time, who by fire and who by water.

Rosh Hashanah begins the 10-day period of reflection known as the Days of Awe, ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One of those two holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, will find the majority of the world’s Jews coming together to stand with the congregation, if surveys are to be believed. For most, this will be their sole foray into a house of prayer until the next Rosh Hashanah. In the intervening months, most will join their families for the Jewish celebrations of freedom, Hanukkah and Passover. Many will follow news from Israel, write an occasional check to charity, perhaps seek out a Jewish-themed movie once or twice. But the congregation will see them only when the next New Year comes around.

It seems a paradox. Many of us cannot believe in a Judge, and yet we come to consider our judgment. For we know with certainty, whatever we believe, that our own actions will determine our fate. Our decisions today will lead to consequences that we and our children will bear tomorrow.

Tradition teaches that there is a Judge, but it also tells us that we make our own fates. The very recitation whose shattering power encapsulates the day — on Rosh Hashanah it is written who shall live and who shall die — begins with the words Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom:We give the holy day its power.

And so the words fill us with foreboding. The power and immediacy seems to grow from year to year. For decades we have been preoccupied with the fires that we humans ignite in our foolishness: the ovens of evil, the specter of nuclear holocaust, the inferno of September 11, the rain of terrorist bombings that has followed.

This year, at last, came the water.

This day is the birthday of the world; this day places all the creatures of the world in judgment.

Few messages in the Jewish liturgy are more enigmatic, and yet few carry deeper resonance. We call this season the New Year, but the text reminds us that it is not the birthing of a year we are gathering to celebrate. It is the birth and rebirth of the world. And that, somehow, is the measure by which we must be judged.

The birth and rebirth of the world are a proper frame for our thoughts on this New Year. The past year began, unforgettably, with a tsunami that swept South Asia, and ended with a hurricane that destroyed New Orleans. We’re certain to be inundated next week with a flood of sermons discussing the storms and what they teach us. We’ll be reminded again and again of our smallness, our vulnerability, our helplessness in face of Nature’s fury. Sure, we’ll be told, the plagues of fire and bombing that have so dominated our thoughts in recent years are the work of our own hands. We might avert those decrees if we could somehow reason our way through. But not the water. We are too small. The water is beyond our power to contain.

Then again, maybe not. Just in time for the New Year, a series of new scientific reports has emerged suggesting that the intense hurricanes and extreme weather of the last decade are partly the product of our own actions. If the weather seems worse of late, that’s because it is, according to studies published in Science, Nature and elsewhere: Hurricanes have increased in intensity by as much as 70% in recent decades. The increase coincides with a rise in the temperature of the oceans, which in turn is partly a product of the human activity — mostly the burning of fossil fuels — that we call global warming.

Or, as the liturgist might say, our fires help to bring our floods.

As we gather this coming week to make our accounting, it’s worth considering the plain language of the text, and what mysteries it holds. We’re celebrating the birthday of the world. That — the integrity of creation — is the final measure of our days.

Who by fire and who by water?

This day is the birthday of the world; this day places all the creatures of the world in judgment.

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Who By Fire, Who By Water

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