The living God who remembers us for life
Reflections for the Jewish New Year 5784
Rosh Hashanah is a holy day that for Jews epitomizes fundamental aspects of our faith relationship with God. Over the course of history, it seems that the belief in an omnipotent Being, creator of the Cosmos, was accepted by most Jews. However, the idea that God is One who draws near to each individual, and who sees and judges their actions, was not so easy for many to accept. But the great Maimonides in the twelfth century includes the belief in God’s caring providence as one of the fundamental precepts of the faith of Judaism (Introduction to the last chapter of the Sanhedrin treatise; principle 10).
In comparison, Albert Einstein did not believe in a God who is interested in what happens in each individual’s life. He was more at home with the thought of Baruch Spinoza who conceived of God as the impersonal totality of the substance and natural laws of the universe. While Einstein was proud of his Jewish heritage, and fully identified with its ethics, he did not think of Judaism as the product of divine revelation, nor did he perceive anything “chosen” about them (https://uncertaintist.files. wordpress.com/2012/10/einstein-letter-gutkind-excerpts.pdf ).
This belief in a sort of “great computer” that organized the cosmos according to certain laws that humanity could perceive only in part forcefully raises the question of the very meaning of existence. In our time, which is witnessing the impressive development of artificial intelligence that calls into question the intellectual capacities of individual human beings, it is worth asking, following the examples of Einstein and Spinoza, whether or not God Godself is nothing more than a mere algorithm.
The meaning of the holy day of Rosh Hashanah is not made explicit in the Bible. It is only the Mishnah (1:2) and the Tosefta (1:11; 13) that explain that it is the day on which God reviews each and every human being, assessing all their behavior. To support this reasoning, the Sages quote Psalm 33:15: “The Lord who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings.”
There is a verb in the Torah, “to love” or aheb, which declares how a person should approach their creator: “You shall love the Lord, your God” (Dt 6:4). The covenant between God and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai specifies that it is not sufficient simply to robotically comply with the commandments. Rather, “Love, therefore, the Lord your God” (Dt 11:1) is the reason to obey God’s commands and teachings. Loving is a feeling that goes beyond the rational. To love God, as the Talmudic sages explained (Mishnah Berachot 9:5), is to maintain that affection even if it consumes your whole being, even in incomprehensible suffering. The psalmist refers to this feeling by saying (42:3 ): “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
The God of the Bible is, so to speak, a living God (Deuteronomy 5:22; Jeremiah 10:10), not disinterested, cold existence. For human beings, life means much more than the mere fact of existing. In particular, everything that relates to feelings, to the soul, is much more than a mere algorithm. Nor can they be reduced to an algorithm. Likewise for the Jewish comprehension of God.
That is why Rosh Hashanah is the moment in which every Jew must delve into the depths of their being to rediscover the deep meaning of life.
In the first ten days of the year that culminate with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the phrase: “Remember us to life, O King who delights in life, inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, O God of life,” is interspersed among many other prayers to God. It is a personal petition that is ideally offered by all humanity.
Christianity shares with Judaism this conception about God and the divine relationship with people. When Jesus is asked about the fundamental commandments (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34), he answers by saying: You shall love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself. The first is part of the declaration of faith that is recited by Jews every day (Keriat Shema), while the second was considered by Rabbi Akiva, one of the most important scholars of the Talmud, as a fundamental principle (Sifra Kedoshim 2: 4)
God's awareness of each human being was eloquently expressed by King Solomon in his speech on the occasion of the inauguration of the Temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:38-43):
Whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people Israel, when each one knows the plague of his own heart, and spreads out his hands toward this temple; then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You alone know the hearts of all the children of men), . . . “Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake . . . when he comes and prays toward this temple; hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You . . .
May God be pleased to accept our human prayers and invocations, in these days of repentance and reform, of Teshuvah, and on every occasion when people cry out for life, so that with God’s blessing humanity once and for all will learn to forge paths of peace and life.
Published in L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, 15th September 2023.
Wishing all of you a good, healthy and peaceful year!