Financial Crisis and Rosh Hashana

Although, admittedly, I have no real understanding as to why those banks collapsed a couple weeks ago or what practical steps should be taken in order to improve the situation on Wall Street, (hey, I studied philosophy, not econ) I have plenty to say about the spiritual ramifications of the current financial crisis.

Whether we like it or not, the uncertainty that many of us are feeling is exactly what we should be feeling going into Rosh Hashana. In my non-observant home growing up, Rosh Hashana was never more than a New Year’s celebration filled with apples and honey.

But despite the fact that we exchange wishes for a sweet new year with one another, Rosh Hashana is actually a very serious day, also referred to as Yom HaDin (or Judgment Day). On Rosh Hashana we acknowledge the fact every facet of our lives for the coming year is up in the air: our health, our wealth, our happiness, the well-being of our family and friends.

That’s why the machzor (holiday prayer book) asks: Who will live and who will die; Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. 

We all prefer to exist in a state of denial – if we’ve been healthy before, we feel certain that our good health will continue. If our finances are stable, we see no reason to assume that things will change. But what we all know deep down is that nothing in our lives is guaranteed, and just because we’ve been blessed with goodness in the past doesn’t mean it will continue into the future.

Therefore, the trepidation that we’re feeling about our finances should not be wasted on needless worrying. Instead we should use it as a tool to help us comprehend the instability of every other area of our lives. I’m not suggesting that we make ourselves more nervous so as to be sadistic, but rather because sincere struggling often motivates us to reach to higher spiritual heights than if life had remained uncomplicated . (Last year, one of my friend’s mother, out of nowhere, starting hemorrhaging in her brain right before Rosh Hashana. I am quite certain that when my friend and her family said the words “who will live and who will die” during the Rosh Hashana prayer service, they understood the reality of life’s uncertainty like never before.)

Truly grasping the uncertainties of life is only the first part of our job on Rosh Hashana, though. The second part is actually the conclusion to the prayer mentioned above. After the machzor asks these poignant questions about how unstable our future is, it answers with: repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil decree.

It’s only once we internalize the severity of our situation that we can fully commit ourselves to repentance, prayer, and charity – the spiritual formula for bringing goodness to the world. Of course there needs to be real world solutions to problems as well, but the spiritual power that we as a people can harness, if we give repentance, prayer, and charity our all, should not be underestimated.

May we all tap into that appropriate level fear and awe this Rosh Hashana and use it to grow in ways that were not possible before. And may our growth bring only good things for ourselves, our families, our people, and all of humanity.

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