Pen Ultimate /In Advance of the Heavenly Audit

We should hope not for 'blessings' to replace 'curses' in the new year, but for next year's curses not to be any worse than last year's.

On the eve of the Jewish New Year, even the nonobservant tend to show up at the synagogue, partly as a nostalgic bow to their childhood traditions and also, perhaps, because they believe Pascal's dictum that it is generally advisable to bet that God exists, because if He does not, He will not come round to collect, but if He does, you are in the clear.

The greeting most commonly exchanged by those who gather to pray on Rosh Hashanah eve is: "Let the old year and its curses come to an end; let the new year with its blessings begin." This is the gist of a piyut (poem) called "Akhot Ktana" - a chant that has become part of the liturgy. Indeed,in the Sephardi tradition, it opens the Rosh Hashanah evening prayers. The piyut was also incorporated into a number of Ashkenazi prayer books.

It was written by Abraham Hazzan Gerondi, a 13th-century kabbalist from Girona, Spain, and it tells, in nine verses, the story of "Akhot ktana" or, literally, the "little sister" (the reference is to the Song of Solomon, in which the little sister represents the congregation, or knesset, of Israel), who is oppressed by enemies and dispersed among them. The first eight verses end with the line, "Let the old year and its curses come to an end," and the last verse, in which God comes to the rescue, signs off with the words: "Let the new year with its blessing begin."

The piyut echoes the tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, which says that, "Ezra ordained that Israel should read the curses in Leviticus before Pentecost, and those in Deuteronomy before the New Year. Why so? Said Abayi, and according to others Resh Lakish: That the curses should end with the year."

There are two chapters in the Pentateuch, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that specify - in great detail - the curses that will befall those who are not faithful to the covenant with the Lord. In Leviticus 26:38, for instance, it says: "And ye shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up." In Deuteronomy 28:43-44: "The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low. He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him: he shall be the head, and thou shalt be the tail."

Abayi explains that the curses in Deuteonomy are in the second-person singular, and pronounced by Moses, whereas in Leviticus, they are phrased in the second-person plural, and Moses describes them by quoting God. (The difference between the two is blurred in the English translation, where "you" is used for both the second-person plural and singular.)

This fits in well with the fact that of all the holy days that the Torah enjoins us to observe, Rosh Hashanah is the only one that does not commemorate a moment in the history of the nation of Israel. The years of the Hebrew calendar are counted (according to tradition) from the moment of the creation of man. Rosh Hashanah is, therefore, a day of self-reckoning, when men and women are supposed to balance their own personal books, and to determine whether, over the past year, they discharged their duties and fulfilled their obligations toward God and their fellow beings. The books are then presented for a heavenly audit, with the final verdict being delivered on Yom Kippur. (I use the financial lingo here intentionally.)

Wishful thinking

I can see the logic in saying "Let the old year and its curses come to an end." Anyone who has lived here, in the singular or the plural, is most likely aware that we had our share of curses during the year 5767. What makes me wonder is the very naive and wishful thinking embodied in the phrase "Let the new year with its blessings begin."

Any CEO knows that it is not enough for the company he or she runs to make a profit; the profit has to increase with every new quarter and every passing year. If it does not grow, it diminishes - even if, technically, it remains the same. In a way, the main "product" manufactured by the company, in the eyes of the owners and shareholders, is really money - and the more, the better. The fact that the company actually produces and sells something else, whether cutlery, computers or candies, is irrelevant.

Over the years we have learned that when you strive to make more money by cutting costs, for instance, the quality of the product tends to deteriorate. Not that the customers complain about this: With time they will get used to anything offered to them.

But there are enterprises - those that address what I shall call "spiritual needs" (for example, publishing houses, theaters and even newspapers) - where the quality of the product (which is not money) is relevant. "Human life" is one of them.

A son once came to his father and told him that he intended to get married. "What's in it for you?" asked the father. "I'll be happy," answered the son. "And once you are happy," insisted the father, "what's in it for you?"

Happiness and affluence are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the relationship between them can be best summed up by a slogan that for a long time adorned the wall of our house: "Money cannot buy you happiness, but it can make your misery more comfortable."

That is a realistic assessment of the way things are in our world (although that should not bar anyone from working hard to earn more while working less). But our expectations should lead us to hope not for "blessings" to replace "curses" in the new year, but for next year's curses not to be any worse than those of last year - hence: "Let it not be worse."

If you think this idea is unduly pessimistic, bear in mind that: A) it is in synch with reality; and B) it is actually optimistic to the hilt. Considering that the world is steadily going from bad to worse - whether by divine or human acts (as neatly summed up in Murphy's Law, as yet not repudiated, that "If anything can go wrong, it will") - the wish that things will stay just as they are is optimism incarnate. Indeed it assumes that things really could have been worse (and very observant realists claim that it will be; indeed, people are already working on it as we speak). But even more optimistic is the view, which I share, that "it could not be any worse than it is now." That is, of course, a fallacy. It can always get worse than this. There are no limits to worse.

Someone said once to another person: "Smile - it could have been worse." So he smiled - and indeed, it was worse.

Happy New Year.