On Rosh Hashanah out thoughts turn to the prayer that we be protected for the next year.
On Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment, we recite the terrifying assertion that on this day it is determined who will live and who will die, who by plague, and who fire, and who by flood. The poet bases his poem on the statement in the Mishnah that all humans are judged on Rosh HaShanah (1:2). In an elaboration of that Mishanh, R. Cruspedai said in the name of R. Yohanan: Three ledgers are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for those who are entirely wicked, one for those who are entirely righteous, and one for those who are in the middle. The entirely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed to live. The entirely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed to die. The fate of those in the middle is held in balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If they have merit, they are inscribed to live. If they do not have merit they are inscribed to die (Talmud Rosh Hashanah. 16 a,b).
On the contrary, another source from our sages asserts that we are all judged on every day. כִּי כָל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ נִדּוֹן בְּכָל יוֹם the opinion of Rabbi Yosi (Rosh Hashanah 16a). Rabbi Natan goes further: “A person is judged at every moment” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). which somewhat accords with the Talmudic statement that God judges the world for three hours each day (Avodah Zarah 3b). According to that source, each day God sees that the world deserves destruction, so God turns from justice to mercy and allows the world to continue.
But whether we are judged on Rosh Hashanah especially, or on some other schedule, the fact remains: We recited this prayer last year, and since then, some have died by plague, some by fire, some by flood. This year especially, the world has experienced a plague year; more than a few have died of plague. The world has experienced a year of accelerating climatic disturbance: More than a few have died of fire; more than a few of flood, including at least 50 in New Jersey and New York last week. Between last Rosh Hashanah and today, some of the fears we articulated have been realized.
And what do you think will happen next year?
I am not a prophet, but I can venture a prediction.
How does prophecy work? Rambam asserts that a person who achieves perfection in morals and intellect, can reach the level where the power of imagination allows the person to understand circumstances from God’s viewpoint. God does not always prevent this from happening.
Rambam strongly rejects the simple assertion that God can give the gift of prophecy to anyone, deserving or not. A simple reading of TaNaKH would seem to support the simple version. Rambam has to explain some difficulties: Jeremiah’s understanding that he was a prophet from birth, and God’s appearance to Avimelech, to Balaam, and even to Balaam’s donkey.
The Talmud records the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan that prophecy has been taken from the prophets, and given to psychotics and children (Bava Batra 12b). I understand this to mean, not that we should pay careful attention to psychotics and children for the purposes of understanding God’s word, but that we should dismiss anyone who claims to the gift of prophecy as either childish or mad. \ Rambam, I believe, never cites Rabbi Yohanan’s statement. Perhaps Rambam believes that conditions do not currently favor prophecy, but that it remains a possibility.
Even without the certainty that comes from prophecy, we have the conviction that God’s protection may extend even to us. We might not have insight into how God protects us.
Rambam, in The Guide of the Perplexed puts forth a theory of divine protection that hinges largely on the development of our intellects. “But I believe that providence is consequent upon the intellect and attached to it “(3:17). Providence, for Rambam, extends to individual humans, and not to animals, because we have intelligence. In the next chapter, he asserts that “when any human individual has obtained, because of the disposition of his matter and of his training, a greater portion of this overflow [intellect] than others, providence will of necessity watch over him more than over others” (3:18). He almost claims that God, by giving us the ability to use our intelligence, gives us the ability to protect ourselves from many dangers. Even if we do not go so far as Rambam seems to go, we can assert that by using our intellect, sometimes we can predict aspects of the future.
I have not achieved perfection in morals or in intellect. I cannot describe current conditions from God’s point of view. Any words about the future from me probably identify me as a childish person or mad. Perhaps, though, based on the Rambam, if I use my intellect, I have the right to urge people to prepare for the future, and take care to preserve our lives.
Rabbinic literature often derives the obligation to preserve our lives from ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם (Deut. 4:15) . “You shall be careful to protect your lives” (Ketubot 30a). In context, the verse, though, warns us against idolatry. A less fanciful source comes from וחיי בהם (Lev. 18:5), that we should do the commandments and live by them. Rav Yehudah says in the name of Shemuel, “וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם (Talmud Yoma 83b), in order to live by the commandments, we need to live. When keeping a commandment results in danger to life, we choose to preserve life. Rabbi Cohen explored similar language in this past week’s Torah reading: (Deut. 30:15) “ובחרת בחיים“ We have to choose life; by choosing to observe the commandments, we do choose to deserve life; but deserved life serves as a reward for observance. We do not sacrifice life for observance (with the known exceptions).
And if we avoid sacrificing our lives for commandments, how much more care should we take to avoid sacrificing our lives for less important matters.
I think this means that we should take every rational precaution to preserve lives. Of course, the rabbi, speaking on Rosh Hashanah, has to urge the congregation to observe the commandments, both ritual and interpersonal commandments.. This year, I think, the rabbi has to urge the congregation to take every rational action in the face of a global pandemic, and in the face of climatic change, to preserve life.