The days from Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”, the New Year) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) are the ten holiest on the Jewish calendar. Known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance, they are a time for reflection on the year past and the year to come, and a time to make amends—not by asking God for forgiveness, but by asking it from those who have been wronged, and through the practice of repentance (literally, “turning”), prayer and charity.
During these days, the Book of Life is metaphorically open, and on its pages your life is weighed: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”
The liturgy for these holidays, and particularly for Yom Kippur, is some of the most moving and soul-searching in all of the religious canon. There are Old Testament readings included, but not too often from the Book of Job.
There are two solid consensuses about the Book of Job.
Literary types agree that it is probably the greatest work of literature in the Bible.
Religious types agree that it is the most puzzling book in the Old Testament, and that even when you look at it in the most common and superficial way (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”), you end up scratching your head.
Job is the book to read for Yom Kippur. It is the book to ponder at the start of the year, at the end of the year, and at points between. (It was, by the way, Abraham Lincoln’s most studied book of the Bible.)
We begin with the book itself.
It is unusual for it to have been included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible because it is not about a Jew. When non-Jews appear in other books, it is usually a story of helping Jews or hurting Jews or marrying Jews or eventually becoming Jewish. None of that applies to the Book of Job.
The story is relatively simple, at least until the end. Job is a rich and pious man who has everything: health, wealth, family and friends (or so they seem). Satan wants to prove that Job’s piety is dependent on his having everything, and challenges God to take it all away. God does.
Job’s friends are convinced that he must have done something wrong, and urge him to figure it out and repent. The scenes with his friends are talky, like a play, or maybe like the film My Dinner With Andre—except this is My Dinner with Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite.
Job’s wife has a different suggestion: “Curse God and die.”
Job remains steadfast in his faith.
And then, in Chapter 37, God appears to Job, to explain it all.
The chapters that follow are a poetic and breathtaking description of the world’s wonders, by the one who made them. God tells Job that his friends don’t know what they’re talking about (God takes care of them later). And God implicitly tells Job the only two things to do: Be awed. Be humble.
Job’s reply in Chapter 42 is one of the most important passages in the Bible. It is not only the watchword for Yom Kippur; it is the watchword for everyone, religious or otherwise, who is convinced they are smarter than anyone in the room or in the universe:
Then Job answered the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
Whether this is a day of reflection and fasting, reciting centuries-old prayers, or an ordinary day of work or study, managing others or being managed; whether you are Job beset by unexplained misfortune, or Job’s wife, ready to kill him if he doesn’t kill himself, or Job’s friends so quick with advice; whether you are being punished by God, Satan, or whatever other forces you believe are working against you; whether you are the smartest person in the room or not; this is what we can do, even if there is seemingly no comfort in it:
Be awed. Be humble.