10/06/2011 11:08 am ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

A Message of Hope on the Jewish New Year

Approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year, in the immediate aftermath of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was struck by the response Jewish tradition makes year after year, day in and day out, to the attack on hope and meaning that stands at the heart of terrorism. Judaism does its best to elicit hope, nurture confidence in the future, and rally our forces to defeat complacency and despair. In the face of a litany of personal, societal and global woes that has seemed particularly long this fall; in the face of our nation's inability to shake the economy loose or defeat our enemies or work together despite our differences, the Jewish calendar insists there is something new in store -- or can be -- if we together do as God, conscience and tradition command. This message is welcome at any season and addresses every human being, regardless of nation or creed. Right here, right now, it literally seems a Godsend.

Consider the Book of Deuteronomy, a central scriptural text for Jews and Christians, and reflect especially on the stirring conclusion of the book, read in synagogue as the High Holidays draw near. Moses gets one last chance to speak to the Children of Israel. When the speech ends, he will die and they will cross over to the Promised Land. Moses's need for the Israelites to listen has never been more imperative. "Hear, O Israel," he says again and again, in words that have become a Jewish credo. Moses has to make his words adequate to a reality that he will never know -- the facts to be built on the ground, the things to be done, on the far side of the Jordan. The Israelites, once they cross the river to new possibilities, have the task of making all they say and do adequate to the teaching that God and Moses gave them in the wilderness -- a task that Jews still face every day.

In some sense, we all face that daily task, I believe. Justice and compassion will increase in the world only if we put them there. Goodness awaits our doing. Society awaits our word. God needs human partners. Each faith needs the others.

This scriptural message is utterly stirring to me. Men and women of every generation, including ours, stand with those Israelites as we welcome new beginnings with hope and resolve. "I make this covenant not with you alone," Moses tells the Israelites, "but with both those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). The story told by the Torah is meant for all humanity. Your work and mine are required to carry God's agenda forward: "when we lie down and when we rise up," when we are sitting in our homes and when we "walk upon the way" (6:7).

Deuteronomy, like all the monotheistic traditions and many others too, is relentless in its insistence that everything we do or say matters, or can be made to matter. The weights and measures used in the marketplace. The treatment of enemies and strangers. The rules that govern divorce and inheritance. What we eat. How we argue. How we imagine God and worship God. How we live as a community and steward the planet. How we love.

When I was young, I used to chafe at the sheer detail of this and the other law codes in the Torah, or be put off by aspects of Deuteronomy's legislation or vision that do not seem right for the present day. No longer. I am grateful that the book's determination to help us pursue justice more than matches the determination of the forces of terror to undermine the belief that justice can ever be achieved. I welcome the book's repetitions now as a spur to work constantly on doing good, for suffering, ignorance and evil are the most repetitious things imaginable. They seem to recur and grow at every moment, thwarting our best efforts to counter them.

You can counter them, Deuteronomy insists. Our society really can be one that attends properly to the details. This is no mere fancy of ancient prophets and sages, even if, as the Bible cautions, none of us can picture accurately how or when the world's arrangements will be made right. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things are ever given to us and our children to do the words of this Teaching" (29:28).

Doing good is not rocket science, as we would say. "This Instruction which I enjoin upon you is not too baffling for you, not beyond reach," not in the heavens, not across the sea. "No, [it] is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart and mind, to do it" (30:11). Sometimes ethical matters are terribly complicated. Sometimes they are painfully simple and we resist doing what we know to be right. At the climax of his final address, Moses sets everyone who hears his voice, in whatever century, before a choice: good or evil, blessing or curse, life or death. "Choose life, so that you and your children can live!" (30:19).

I remember college days when my friends and I had the luxury of debating for hours -- as if the matter were an abstract and abstruse metaphysical issue -- whether human beings have free will or all is determined. I still enjoy a good philosophical debate as much as the next person and appreciate the value of philosophy more than most. But as the years of middle age slip by and the world seems to slide further into hopelessness, I have less patience for anything that gets in the way of doing good. For only when we do good together, and see ourselves doing it, will we have hope. God needs us to do this. So does the world.