Judaism & the Dark Side of the Subjunctive: Rosh Hashanah Morning

If you have ever studied Roman mythology, you may recall the god, Janus. Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. He is also known as the god of doorways and time. Our secular month of January serves as his namesake, and of course January is the month when we celebrate a different kind of new year.

Images and sculptures of Janus are fascinating, as he has two faces. Each face turns toward opposite sides; he is looking back at the past and forward to the future, and both at the same time.

I've often mentioned that the Hebrew word for 'remember', zachor, is repeated more than any other command in the Torah. This certainly resonates with us this morning, as we look backwards to inspect the details of the past year. We look back to take an accounting of our true selves.

And of course, we too have a face turned toward the future. We pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life, that the gates of repentance will close with us safely ensconced within a year of blessing and goodness, peace and prosperity.

Memory and hope. Past and future.

Rosh Hashanah encapsulates this duality. But there is much more to Jewish life beyond the adherence to memory on the one hand and the hope for a better future on the other. But in order to explain, I need to talk about English grammar and the subjunctive tense.


In case you are like me and were dozing off during high school grammar, I will cover the three moods that are in the English language; indicative, imperative and subjunctive.

The indicative tense treats verbal actions as fact: I pray with friends and family today is an indicative statement.

The imperative tense treats verbal actions as command such as used when your spouse or parent gently says: Do the dishes!

Thirdly, we have the subjunctive tense. Here, verbal action is non-factual. If I don't eat a big dinner before Kol Nidrei, I'll really be hungry during Yom Kippur. Here's another example: If you get that promotion, You'll be able to buy that new car.

The subjunctive tense is a time and space dream machine. It is here that we ponder on things we 'should have' done, or on things that we might still do. It's also a place to reflect on alternate possibilities: Had I not gone to Amos' retirement party, I would not have met the woman I love, Emily.

But as Phuc Tran explained at a marvelous TED talk, there is a dark side to the subjunctive.

To understand this, we need to look at a fantastic midrash. It's one that I come back to each year, precisely because I need to be reminded that there is sometimes a gap between my good intentions for the future and my actions in the present.

There was a poor woman who had many children. They were always begging for food, but she had none to give them. And one day, lo and behold, they found a beautiful large egg. She called her children and said, 'Children, children! We've nothing to worry about any more for I've found an egg! And we will not eat this egg. Instead we will ask our neighbor to put it under her hen, so that a chick will hatch. And we will not eat the chick, but instead we will set her on eggs, and those eggs will hatch into chickens. And soon, we'll have many chickens and many eggs. We will sell those and buy a cow. And then we'll wait until we have a few cows and we will buy a field. And we will never go hungry again!

Wouldn't you know it, in her excitement the egg fell out of her hand and broke.


This is the danger of the subjunctive tense. Our thoughts of 'could have' and 'should have' as well as our hopes of 'could be' are a Pandora's box of hope and regret. We can get stuck inside that Pandora's box, caught between a past that we regret and a future that might never occur.

On the other hand, however, the subjunctive allows us to ask, 'what if.' Today on Rosh Hashanah, we dream. Big. We ask ourselves, What if I became the person that I want to be? What if I acted with compassion and sensitivity? The 'what if' question is necessary. Without 'what if', there would be no t'suvah ... no growth ... no change.

In this way, our High Holiday grammar lesson teaches us that the subjunctive allows us to imagine our future, better selves. Our High Holidays are a liturgical manifestation of the subjunctive. We ask 'what if.' We dream of the future, and improve upon the past.

But, If there is a dark side of the subjunctive, there can also a dark side to the dreaming we do on the High Holidays. We must remember that while we are dreaming of our future, we must also live our lives. Today. In the present.


Jewish law is often characterized in two ways. There is the Torah Shebichtav, the written Torah, and the Torah Sheba'al Peh, the oral Torah. The first refers exclusively to the 5 books of Moses. The second includes the Talmud, midrash and other writings that were transmitted orally from teacher to student.

But today, at this present moment, I want us to consider a third modality of Torah: Torah Sheba'al Po, the Torah that is here. Today.


The Exodus from Egypt is the perfect example of this concept.

After the 10th plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go. With haste, we left Egypt. But just as we thought we were finally free from the yoke of Pharaoh, he changed his mind yet again. He sent his best warriors after us.

We hurried, rushing our children along toward safety, but then we hit an impasse. The massive Red Sea loomed in front of us, blocking our path toward redemption. The Egyptians were behind us, and a better future was in front of us ... Past and future.

Had we only looked backwards and forwards, we would have been paralyzed on the subjunctive shores of the Red Sea. Focusing only on the past or the future does not allow us to change the world.

In order to change the world - in order to change ourselves - we need to first accept the world's indicativeness. Last night, I talked about responding to life with a resounding, Hineni. Here I am. Not, Here I was, or Here I will be. No ... Here I am.


Midrash suggests that at this liminal moment between the past and the future, Nachson started to go into the waters of the Red Sea, the words of Mi Chamocha on his lips. As he went further from the shore, the water continued to rise against his body until finally it reached his lips. Just as he coughed during the second Mi Chamocha,* the waters split.

And that's still not the end of the story. Led by Miriam, all of the Israelites jubilantly sang this song of freedom. Mi Chamocha Ba'elim Adonai! And here I want to pause for a moment, imagining that we are looking at a selfie that one of our Israelite ancestors took at that moment. A question comes to mind: Why were the Israelites singing? I ask, because this song of jubilation and redemption was sung before we made it safely across to dry land. We were not free yet! Our song of freedom was sung before we achieved the future promise of that freedom.


Nachson teaches all of us the importance of this Torah Sheba'al Po. The Israelites needed a miracle. And so, Nachson chose to 'lift up his eyes' and see a miracle. It's crucial that we understand that the sea did not split until after Nachson walked into the deepening waters of the Red Sea. He was not paralyzed by 'what if' or 'should have.' He was inspired by a different grammatical reality: 'As if.'

Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we must live as if the world is just. We must live as if the waters of our conflicts are parted. Nachson dreamed of the future, but he also recognized the blessing of the present moment.

Two quotes that reflect this thought: Ghandi implored us, Be the change you wish to see in the world. Willy Wonka sang, If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.

Our past should help us achieve the future by acting as if that future is the Torah Sheba'al Po, the Torah that is right here, right now.

The grammar of Judaism teaches us to dream in the subjunctive while living in the indicative.


Janus faces in two directions, caught between regret and hope, memory and dream. Judaism reminds us to keep our gaze affixed backwards and forwards, but also straight ahead, focused on the present moment.

Let us not be trapped by the 'dark side' of the subjunctive. Let us not be paralyzed by the mistakes of the past or the hopes of the future. Rather, let us wade into the murky, unclear waters of life with Mi Chamocha Ba'elim Adonai. on our tongues. Let the water rise amongst us as we continue singing.

The waters will part.

L'shana Tovah.

What's Behind the Curtain? Yom Kippur Evening

Look up and See Blessing: Rosh Hashanah Evening