As anyone with even a passing familiarity with High Holiday prayers can tell you, these are times designed for looking inward. The Hebrew phrase “heshbon ha-nefesh” captures it: an inner accounting, of the self, the soul, the spirit. We think, “let me do better, let me be better.” And we ask, “protect me from this,” “heal me from that,” “give me more of the sweet, less of the bitter.”
But as anyone who spends time in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur likely knows, one’s gaze is not solely directed inward. Especially for those who frequent the same shul year after year, we inevitably look around – and we notice. We take mental snapshots and our thoughts coalesce in parallel to the recitation of the liturgy. Who is here this year and who’s not? Who looks older, healthier, all grown up, more settled, less settled, happier, more haunted? Whose problem child has turned a corner? Who has shown up with a new child, a new spouse, a new gender?
This outward accounting is not a digression from the job of looking inward, but a necessary component of it. The traditional Torah and haftarah readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah remind us that our celebration of the good fortune of others is often mixed. There seems to always be two sons for every blessing, two wives for every husband, two mothers for every child. The world seems like a place of limited resources.
Sarah and Hagar vie for primacy in Abraham’s household. Like Hagar, Peninah taunts her childless rival. When Hannah finally conceives, her paean of thanks envisions the other wife as bereft. Isaac and Ishmael cannot both remain in their father’s household or inherit his legacy. Abraham must choose between them. These readings – like others in the Torah – seem to depict life as a zero-sum game, where one person’s happiness hinges on another’s distress. Whether it’s husbands, or children, or love, or blessings, there may simply not be enough to go around.
If so, our empathy and compassion for others is necessarily tinged with envy. If resources are limited, do we, in a hidden place in our hearts, rejoice in the sorrow of others? The Rosh Hashanah readings help us capture that shadow emotion – the fear that what the other gets I will lack. It asks that we account for traces of schadenfreude, the celebration of the suffering of others, that are not simply personal emotions, but increasingly seem to characterize the harsh mood of our era.
The masterful Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon, in his compendium of High Holiday readings and traditions, Days of Awe, notes the importance of a yearly – rather than only occasional – inner accounting. He points to the “kindness toward his creatures that the Lord remembers them and reviews their deeds year after year on Rosh Hashanah, that their sins may not grow too numerous and there may be room for forgiveness, and, being few, he may forgive them.” In other words, as Agnon sees it, a year’s accumulation of misdeeds may be forgivable, but left to accumulate over a protracted period of time, the sheer quantity might mitigate against such mercy.
But it seems to me that what is on Agnon’s mind is not so much the capacity of Divine mercy and forgiveness, but the way our unchecked attitudes can entrap us, if we are not attentive. Agnon continues, “For, if he were not to remember them for a long time, their sins would multiply to such an extent as to doom the world, God forbid. So this revered day assures the world of survival.”
An insightful explorer of the human psyche, Agnon understood how entrenched we can become in fears, pettiness and judgment of others. We need to catch ourselves and our worst impulses regularly, for our own, and the world’s, survival.