The upcoming Jewish High Holidays might not seem like a fitting time to ponder Twitter, virtue-signaling, and public shaming. Yet the Days of Awe, which begin with Rosh Hashanah on September 25 and culminate ten days later with the fast of Yom Kippur, offer a timely lesson in how our modern methods of communication might define not only the year ahead but our own long-term legacies.
During the penitential High Holidays, Jews pray: “Inscribe us in the Book of Life, King who seeks life.” According to the rabbinic tradition, on Rosh Hashanah God determines who shall live and who shall die, inscribing his judgment in the Book of Life. This judgment will not be sealed until Yom Kippur. During the Days of Repentance in-between, Jews are directed to repent of misdeeds, to give to charity, and to pray, in order to either change a negative judgment, or to maintain—or improve—a positive one. There is a ten-day waiting period for deep consideration between God's first draft and final draft. During this time, the Lord watches our actions even more closely than usual.
God’s ledger, unlike our hastily-issued tweets and Facebook posts, shows no partisan preference, garners no applause for moral grandstanding, and more likely than not deducts credit for publicly shaming others. It offers no filters through which we might artificially improve our appearance. It simply records our deeds, for better or worse, in the furtherance of the most solemn judgment.
In today's world, of course, writing is quite different. Most people, after composing a tweet or Facebook post, do not stop to reflect before publishing it. And there is no waiting period for repentance after a wrongly worded tweet or unpopular sentiment. Rather, tweets can lead to instant cancellation or boycotting. Documents meant to be seen only by a few can easily fall into unexpected hands, reminding us that we do not control where our words will ultimately emerge. And corporations, universities, and nonprofits alike struggle in the sea of social media virtue-signaling, partisan pandering, and misinformation.
The culture of rapid publication has affected even our government. The White House used to carefully govern every word that emanated from it through a rigorous process enforced by the staff secretary. Today, while the staff secretary still approves official presidential communications, individual offices within the White House now have their own Twitter accounts. There is no comparable approval process for these accounts. The value of a communique from the White House has been greatly diminished.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once remarked upon the last words of historian Simon Dubnow, who was killed by a Nazi bullet in the Riga ghetto in 1941. As Dubnow lay dying, he said “Yidn, shreibt un farschreib”—“Jews, write and record.” It was, Rabbi Sacks suggested, his last breath’s argument that writing is “our most sacred act, as if the witness of words was our legacy to the world.”
Abraham Lincoln, too, thought of writing as a way to traverse the ages. “Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world,” he wrote. “Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it—great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.”
Do our own communications—be they late-night expressions of righteous anger or attempts to replicate the latest dance craze on TikTok—meet this lofty standard? Or would all of us benefit from taking more time to think before issuing our next missive, foolishly thinking we can contain its echoes?
Amid the High Holiday season, Jews greet each other with a phrase that is both a wish and a blessing—“Ketivah ve-chatimah tova,” “may your being written and sealed go well.” It reflects the belief that our discourse can affect the divine discourse determining our fates. All Americans, whether or not they believe in the Book of Life, might take this period to consider what we write, how we write it, and how we want to be remembered.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is the senior advisor to the provost and deputy director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. Tevi Troy is director of the Presidential Leadership Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the author of Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by Joi Ito licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.