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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way (Touchstone).
The intense focus on death during the holiday period runs the risk of turning morbid. Since encounter with death evokes guilt, there is a risk that the High Holy Days will turn into a guilt trip; however, the goal of the Days of Awe is not merely repentance but renewal. It is a move toward an examined life, not masochistic self-flagellation.
It is not only physical death that threatens the humanness of life but a kind of death in life, a psychic numbing. Routinization, loss of responsiveness, and habituation deaden perception and concern. When we stop examining our lives, we lose the ability to give appropriate responses to the variety of experiences that life presents to us.
The Fullness of Life
One definition of life is the capacity to respond. The direction of life’s growth in the eyes of Jewish tradition is toward ever-greater responsiveness. Inorganic matter does not respond. The higher up the evolutionary scale, the greater the movement from biological necessity to psychic freedom. The goal of the human in God’s image is the fullness of life: to become more and more like God, Who responds out of the infinity of life, not in a pre-programmed fashion without necessity or determinism but uniquely and appropriately to each person and situation. The normal processes of routinization and numbing are the enemies of this growth.
Ordinary consciousness selects and filters from reality to construct a "stable" reality and consciousness. Human sensory systems have evolved to tune out everyday patterns and to respond primarily to changes in the environment. As people learn, the skills they acquire often become automatic; many personal movements no longer enter consciousness. People learn to numb responses and conscience in the face of cruelty, injustice, and death because these are traumatic, psychic-overload experiences that cause pain. Thus, in the daily normal process of living, the psyche begins to die. Even intense positive experiences–such as love relationships–eventually become routine and familiar. How, then, can individuals stay alive, intensely alive, psychically alive?
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