As we approach the High Holidays this year, the words of the prayer “who by fire who by water” keep going through my mind. What does it mean that we are being judged on Rosh Hashanah? Does this mean that last year God decided who would die in Hurricane Katrina? In the tsunami? What about the all the good people who seem to suffer, were they too “judged”?
The prayer that you mentioned is often thought of as the “centerpiece” of the services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is beyond doubt one the most awe-inspiring prayers in our liturgy.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed
and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed,
How many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created;
Who will live and who will die;
Who will die at their appointed end;
and who before their time;
Who by water; who by fire…”
Your questions are well placed. No one would argue that this prayer is appropriately stirring and deeply moving. But what does it mean to be inscribed? Where are we inscribed? What does “sealed” mean? Why would someone die before his time? Is death a punishment?
A passage in the Talmudic tractate Rosh Hashanah is a good place to start investigating all of these issues.
Rabbi Kruspidai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous and one of intermediate people. The completely righteous are written and immediately sealed for life. The completely wicked are immediately written and sealed for death. The intermediate people are held in abeyance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are written for life; if they do not merit it, they are written for death.
The Talmud then cites proof texts for the notion of God having a “book.” In Psalms, David requests that his enemies be erased from the “book of life,” as did Moses beseech God to remove his own name form the “book.”
Though it satisfying to learn origin of the “book” idea, this Talmudic passage poses its own problems. It seems to indicate that the righteous are rewarded with life and the wicked are punished with death. That indeed, as the prayer seems to indicate — if we are good, we will live and if we are sinful, we will die. Death might be visited upon us in a host of diverse scenarios including, but I suspect not limited to: fire, water, sword, beast, famine, thirst, storm, plague strangulation, and stoning.
Is this indeed the case? Will the wicked die this year? Furthermore, if you do indeed die this year, are you to be deemed wicked? Something does not seem right with this hypothesis.
We would not be the first amateur thinkers to observe the world and notice that this simplistic theory does not seem operational. The Bible itself observes, in the words of Jeremiah, this discrepancy. The prophet cries out with despair, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?”
King Solomon notices, in his wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “Sometimes a righteous man perishes for all his righteousness and sometimes a wicked man endures for all his wickedness.”
We have a problem. On one hand a meticulous judgment is promised by an All-knowing God and yet on the other hand we have detected something amiss: the good suffer, the wicked prosper.
The Menorat Hamaor suggests an approach to Theodicy; the problem of God and evil in this world that may help with this dilemma. He points out that if we were to “fix” the world and readjust its evil/righteous barometer, making sure that the wicked suffer and that the righteous would prosper, human beings would become ridiculous. The purpose of the world would shift.
We are not on Earth to earn a nugget of cheese as we navigate our way through the foibles of complex mazes set before us. We are here to wrestle. To be challenged. To rise to the top after moral struggles.
If we were to earn reward in this world upon our immediate good actions with dollars miraculously deposited into our bank accounts, what would happen to the pure motivation to be good? “Therefore, the Creator has designed the world in such a way that material reward and retribution are not always in direct proportion to righteousness and sinfulness. Only this will people serve Him for the sake of fulfilling His will and achieve spiritual reward.”
Additionally, the Menorat Hamaor reminds us that the world could not operate on a strictly “sin/punish, do good/reward” basis, because it would wreak havoc with the balance of nature. The natural order of the world is determined by positive and negative factors within nature itself.
Could you imagine? If you were evil, your own private cloud would follow you around while your righteous neighbor was treated to sunshine. If you were righteous, you might expect to pass before a speeding train and remain unharmed. “Nature must be permitted to run its course, at least in outward appearance.”
Though we have solved the world’s problems, we still have our centerpiece prayer to figure out together. There is a multiplicity of approaches to this tension between knowing that the world does not operate on a strict reward/punishment basis and the belief that we are judged on Rosh Hashanah.
The Tosfot’s answer is simple and direct: “Who shall live and who shall die” are references not to this material world, but to the everlasting existence beyond this Earth. Our human existence is limited, the eternal life of the noble soul is vast and infinite, and it is there we find our ultimate reward.
And that’s what this season is all about: becoming decent, gracious people leading lives of loftiness, motivated not by corporeal reward but by the satisfaction of doing what is right.
But what of the fire and the water? The prayer reflects the notion that this is the season for repentance. We are being judged for the year ahead. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is designated as a time of intimacy and good will between God and the People Israel. Consider your deeds of the past year, make amends, and pledge to yourself to do better this year. If not now, when?
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Judaic Principal at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at email@example.com.