We say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but we are often wrong. It is self-delusion to suppose that if we always make a sound decision, expend the extra effort, do the right thing, we will always figure it all out.
Jewish culture especially glorifies the seductive illusion that everything is possible. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t.
So the important message of Rosh Hashana is not the self-congratulatory celebration of “Happy New Year,” but the line from Avinu Malkeinu: “Honeinu v’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim — “Be gracious to us for we have no deeds of our own” — or, at least, some day we won’t have any. The day will come (if it has not already) when our capacity will seem paltry, given lives that grow older and frailer, and the inevitability of meeting challenges that prove insurmountable.
“On Rosh Hashana,” we say, “it is written who will live and who will die.” As literal theology, I don’t buy that. But as metaphor for the human condition, nothing could be more graphic. Our fate is often written for us; we don’t always get to write it.
This is not to say we are helpless, but we do need to replace the neurotic notion that we are completely in charge with the recognition that we are often quite dependent — on the weather, on politics and people, on fate and circumstance, on any number of things.
This should have been Shabbat m’var’him, the Shabbat immediately preceding the new month, when we invoke the blessing on the month ahead. But the new year is an exception. Rosh Hashana is indeed a Rosh Hodesh, a new month, but Jewish tradition dispenses with the normal blessing then because (says the Baal Shem Tov) “In the month that starts the new year, it is God who says the requisite blessing. Only by virtue of that divine act may we bless the other months that follow.”
The recognition that we are unempowered to invoke the blessing for the coming year underscores the message that we cannot go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on everything and everyone. We will get tired, we will sometimes fail, we will need help.
The real heroes of the world are not those who claw their way to the top as if immune to limitations. The people I nominate for men and women of the year are the ordinary souls who muster the courage to go on, day after day, week after week, knowing they cannot solve life’s worst problems, but committed nonetheless to solving what they can and living with what they cannot. They, and we, will find comfort in a prayer with which Yom Kippur ends: precisely because we are dependent, “God reaches out a hand” to us. We are not alone in our shortcomings; some invisible force sustains us; and throughout the year-long silence following the echoes of Yom Kippur’s final shofar blast, that hand will be there for all who seek it.