Friday, September 22, 2006


"I'm very worried."

This sentiment is now apparent all around on the facial expression and nervous manner of the exceedingly devout. On this Rosh Hashanah, will my good deeds outweigh the bad? On this Day of Judgment, will I prevail before the righteous Judge? The anxiety is so palpable you'd think someone brainwashed these poor folks into thinking their very life depended upon upholding some strange customs and practices that can never be perfectly upheld.

And you'd be right.

Life, health, success, and happiness all depend on that very thing, according to religious teaching. And you better hope your efforts are found to be adequate, because the consequence of the converse can be dreadful. Famine, pestilence, wild animals, fire, sword, and just plain "death" are all mentioned in the liturgy, as a gentle hint of what the ultimate Judge in his ultimate Righteousness is capable of if you piss him off. You had better not do that. Him being very fickle, you have your work cut out for you. This sentiment is particularly acute now, since our tradition perceives of Him in this time of the year as an exacting King judging all living things without any compromise -- with a pettiness more befitting the proverbial Queen, if you ask me. But nobody does.

And so, anxiety and apprehension are widespread. Truth be told, it is widespread year round when it comes to observing Halacha, the God-given code of law His chosen people were chosen to choose for themselves with the gentle inducement of the ultimate threat of dropping a small mountain on their collective heads. But that is about the holiday of Shavuoth -- you'll have to wait for that story. At any rate, performance anxiety is widespread and entrenched when it comes to Mitzvahs. Many things are passionately repeated, minutely examined, and just all-around obsessed about -- just to make sure it's being done right and the Lord is properly appeased. Too many things to mention really; enough to say the atmosphere sometimes resembles an OCD inpatient clinic with a new shipment of particularly colorful and obsessed characters.

A particularly egregious example is this very holiday. The Torah (allegedly) commands us to sound a horn, or Shofar, on Rosh Hashanah; you'd think we'd take a horn and sound it, and that'd be that. But no. Due to our ever increasing doubts on how this should be done, exactly, and what kind of blowing God meant to be pleased by, we now blow the Shofar one hundred times, in every which way a human brain can conceive. But that isn't enough. We then repeat the whole exercise on the next day, just in case, you know, our calendar happens to be off by one or something.

Wait, we're not finished.

Seems some of our holy sages were particularly concerned with the prohibition of doing work on the Sabbath. A capital offense, in the eyes of God. What happens if, say, someone decides to learn how to sound the horn on a Rosh Hashanah day that happens to fall on the Sabbath? Being that it isn't that easy to do, he decides to seek out a teacher. But he's worried that the teacher doesn't have a Shofar of his own. See, he's a careful fellow; likes to cover his bases -- it's just that he happened to forget he doesn't know how to blow up until the last possible minute. In his mad dash to finish learning how to do this while there's still time to do it, he grabs his own Shofar and rushes out the door to go find the teacher before he takes his afternoon nap. Now, he just earned himself the death penalty! See, by prohibiting "work" God meant to proscribe carrying anything on the street no matter how light, in the same sense that blowing a horn means creating a centuplicate racket.

How reasonable is this scenario with the forgetful fellow, you ask? Well, how reasonable is it that you're still dirty after washing today for the 9th time? That is why it has a three-letter abbreviation and earns a prominent place in the DSM IV. This fantastical scenario sufficiently troubled our sages to compel them to scrape this whole blowing business when Rosh Hashanah happens to fall on Shabbos, as it does this year. Lock, stock, and barrel. Not a hundred sounds, not fifty, not ten, and not one. Nothing. Zero. Makes perfect sense.

Is it any wonder we suffer religious angst?

Some would delight in pointing out that skeptics and atheists don't escape feelings of angst, either. Existential angst. The question then is: Are we cursed by our very humanity to feeling angst, or are we blessed to suffer existential angst, which defines us as humans?

Wishing a happy and angst-free New Year to all our readers.