As the leaves begin to turn and the air carries the crisp promise of autumn, Jews around the world prepare for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days of judgment and atonement.
As the sacred words of our liturgy call out, these are the moments when destiny hangs in the balance. As one of the most moving prayers asks of us, will the year ahead hold health or sickness, safety or insecurity, laughter or tears, power or helplessness? The very books of life and death lie open, awaiting a verdict.
These prayers have stirred and moved our people for generations since antiquity and retain their emotional sharpness. For many, it is a powerful time.
However, there’s one problem staring us right in the face: the central premise upon which these days seem to be built just isn’t true.
One might argue that a linear universe governed by straightforward principles and predictable outcomes reflects Divine wisdom and control. In a linear world, moral choices are clear; if we make amends and do better, then everything will be okay. Many people believe this, and we should let them!
But for everyone else, this is an age-old problem thinkers have engaged with and been troubled by – theodicy, the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people?
Or, to frame it differently, why don’t bad things happen to bad people? After all, it’s the central premise of the High Holy Days.
If you take a cohort of the objectively nastiest people and conduct a longitudinal study monitoring them over a few years, most would probably not face cosmic retribution; they would continue to live and perhaps even flourish. In many cases, life would go on for them, devoid of any tangible form of the kind of divine justice promised by the High Holy Days. This incongruence challenges the philosophical underpinnings of our beliefs and, on the most basic fundamental level, offends our innate sense of fairness and balance and can leave us feeling spiritually adrift; why bother with the exercise of making amends if it doesn’t make a difference?
But taking this presumption to its logical conclusion reveals its critical weakness. That’s not how the universe works; that’s not how it’s ever worked, or at least not since the prophets stopped speaking.
In reality, most bad people will make it to next year, and some of the best will be gone too soon. This has always been true; that’s just how it goes. If you get caught up in questions like this, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.
In all of our stories, none of our heroes, from Avraham to Moshe, seem to exist in a universe that operates with linear justice; it’s actually a key part of understanding their stories correctly. Even for the perfectly and completely righteous, life doesn’t suddenly become easy or straightforward.
And yet, the worldview of a universe governed by linear justice is openly endorsed by the liturgy — sin and punishment, cause and effect, action and consequence. This model doesn’t resonate with anyone paying even the slightest attention to the world around them and the people in it.
In a universe of swirling complexity where every particle dances to the rhythm of quantum mechanics and uncertainty principles, the notion of linearity seems almost quaint. Complexity is all we know, inviting us to engage with life’s ambiguities and explore its mysteries, driving our spiritual and moral development. In the intricate landscape of real life, the simple black-and-white nature of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur openly invites our questions.
In a universe that plainly doesn’t operate with reflexive linear justice, how can we honestly engage with the central premise of the High Holy Days?
The question is far too good; it has stood the test of time.
But perhaps part of the answer is rooted in a perspective shift, moving from an objective view to a more personal angle, our subjective spiritual experience. Belief in reward and punishment is one of Judaism’s basic core tenets; it is compatible with the factual observation that the universe is more complex than a human mind can grasp, a humbling teaching the Creator intimately shares with Moshe.
But while the mechanics and metaphysics lie beyond our reach, the archetypes of atonement, justice, reward, and punishment are accessible and useful tools for moral and spiritual growth.
The question of linear justice is based on cause and effect, but the unspoken part of the equation is associated with time; someone did a bad thing last year and didn’t repent, and they’ll get to next year just fine! Even if they get struck by lightning in twenty years, that’s not the notion suggested by our prayers. This link invites us to examine not just how we understand justice but also how we understand time.
In our basic primary experience, we perceive time as a line – from then to now, birth to death. Linear time is deeply ingrained in our cultural, philosophical, and scientific narratives: beginning, middle, and end. It offers predictability and order.
But this sense of order is a convenient fiction, a heuristic that makes a complex universe more digestible. A linear universe could never capture the multi-layered, infinitely nuanced essence of the Divine. It would lack the depth and subtlety that make our moral dilemmas fertile ground for growth and transformation. The linearity we attribute to time and justice is subjective and limited, and there are other ways to perceive time.
Rather than perceive time as a simple line, we also understand time as something cyclical, where events repeat in patterns, with seasons and cycles. When we celebrate a birthday or anniversary, there is a sense of renewal, a revived manifestation of the original event. You were born one day some time ago, but the energy or force that gave life to you is special, and we mark it every year in the present, even though the day you were born is still anchored in the past – a temporal loop. Every birthday is a new start, a fresh count of your life, which aligns with the notion that time is not strictly linear but contains pockets of cyclical or even spiral-shaped significance.
The very building blocks of life as we know it, DNA, isn’t linear – it’s a double helix, an interlocking spiral.
Life is about cycles, not lines, a spiral galaxy forever rotating yet never returning to the exact same point. When we think of justice, judgment, time, and life itself as cyclical, like seasons of the year or phases of the moon, we can make room for regeneration, renewal, and the sanctity of imperfection.
Rosh Hashana isn’t just a commemoration of the anniversary of Creation; it reinvokes the Creative energy and forces that gave rise to life and all things, renewing our existence and endowing the New Year with freshness and vitality.
The notion of Teshuva aligns with cyclicality. We shouldn’t idealize the notion of a clean slate wiped to zero. Repentance isn’t a simple linear departure from the past and saying sorry; you will still be you. Repentance is a form of spiritual regeneration, what one thinker called the eternal return. It is a step forward but also a step inward; the most updated version of you would not make those same mistakes.
As we beat our chests as an act of contrition, we remember that our world is not just one of brokenness but also one of continual creation, where each end marks a new beginning, every fall is an invitation to rise, and every step of repentance is a step in our never-ending journey toward realizing human and Divine love in the ongoing struggle toward becoming better versions of ourselves, year after year, cycle after cycle.
The universe isn’t governed by linear justice, but neither are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur moments in linear time. They are recurring points on the spiral of the universe, offering us opportunities for self-examination and growth. Each turn of the spiral provides a new perspective on the same recurring challenges and themes of our journey through it. Each year invites a new opportunity for a deeper and more nuanced understanding, enlarging the High Holy Days from specific moments in linear time into recurring opportunities for growth and reflection in cyclical time,
In this view, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a breath of life welcoming the new year to come, profound moments of human and cosmic regeneration, our souls invited to dance to the rhythm of an ancient melody that is heard every year for the first time.
Life is complex, not linear, but you probably know which way your words and deeds are oriented – towards life or death, towards health or sickness, towards laughter or tears. These become not final verdicts but periodic reference points in the cyclical adventure of the rich tapestry that is the wild complexity of life in our universe.
Take the opportunity the High Holy Days present to reflect and redirect. With purpose and intention, step into the next iteration of the cycle with freshness and optimism – towards life, towards health, and towards laughter.
It’s going to be a Happy New Year.