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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Gmar Chatima Tovah, Free Will and Gd's Hands...

Traditional Jewish New Year's Blessing:
"Be a head and not a tail."
This is my "head" for the Jewish Year of 5777.
There's a basic aspect of Jewish theology/philosophy that can get rather confusing. On one hand we credit Gd with having power over everything, including ourselves, but on the other hand we stress the fact that we have Free will and must take responsibilities for our decisions and sins. That is what repentance is all about.

The traditional greeting this time of the Jewish Year is "Gmar Chatima Tovah," which is explained to mean "May Gd seal you in the book of Life." This greeting/blessing refers to the Teshuva, Repentance we're supposed to have done and can also be explained as "I hope Gd gives you a good grade." Or "I hope you passed the test."

That's because Gd has the power over life and death. Now, if that's the case, is it Gd, murderers or illnesses or accidents that kill us? This can get very complicated to explain.

Is death a way of punishing us? If Gd is punishing us by killing us, then are murderers really guilty or are they tools of Gd? How does all this jive with Free Will?

With my Matan "Al Haperek" group, we've been learning Job, and Job struggles over these questions, because suddenly his family and wealth are gone, and he is angry with Gd. He wants to talk face-to-face with Gd to ask why, but instead of Gd he argues with his friends. Job doesn't accept the answers his friends give him, and his friends have lost sympathy urging Job to get on with his life.

Unlike pretty much all other religions, Jews argue and delve into Judaism relatively freely. And I'm talking about strictly Torah observant Jews, not just those who think many of the Mitzvot are optional and irrelevant for today's life. What do you think that all those tens of thousands or more students do day and night in yeshivot? They don't sit around trying to memorize more and more restrictions. The Batei Medrash, Study Halls are filled with noise as the students read and argue fine points of religious texts, philosophy and observance with their study partners. And these students aren't just teens and young people in their early twenties. They are adults, parents, grandparents. Some only have time a few hours a day or week, while others "learn" as a job, getting a stipend or once they've retired and can live on their pension.

In the Rosh Hashanah prayers, there is a very famous one called  Unetanneh Tokef Prayer and in it we recognize that only Gd has power over life and death:

But we're still left with questions:
Is death solely a punishment? And then is it punishment only for the one who died or for the ones who loved him/her?
And aren't there times when death is a "gift?"
Thoughts for this new year, 5777...

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