On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
These words are from one of the core texts in our High Holiday liturgy the “Unetanh tokef”. The prayer is challenging on at least two fronts:
It declares divine, preordained will for negative actions
It lists numerous elements of suffering, all which we know will be true for someone in the coming year.
While the theology of the holidays is complicated, the concept that on Rosh Hashanah our actions are reviewed and on Yom Kippur we are judged for them is the subject of another e-KI or sermon. Today I want to focus on what is unique to this prayer, the list of tragedies that may or may not befall us in the coming year.
What is hard about this prayer is the truth behind it. It is true that some will die in the coming year, some will be taken before their time, some by fire and water, by war and beast, by famine and drought, by earthquake and plague…the list goes on. Skipping the prayer, redefining the language, or declaring one’s disbelief in God does not change this truth. We are good at avoidance, good at pushing things away and changing their meaning, good at denial. But because we have read these same words for decades, or centuries, we know their truth. We think back on who we lost and how we lost them, and the power of the prayer makes is even more profound and devastating.
Does the trouble with Unetaneh tokef come with the power of truth? Or is it more? Is it the theology that there is a God that allows this suffering? That is an ancient debate, one which we understand has to do with the nature of free will, the evolution of our planet, and our ability to understand tragedy. Not wanting to live in a world with suffering is not a good enough reason to disavow God. In fact, our God and our liturgy declare clearly, even at the end of this prayer that the harshness of the impact of the tragedy can be lessened through repentance (tshuvah), reflection (t’fillah) and righteousness (tzedakah). We know this is true. We know there is enough food in the world, if we would distribute it correctly. We know violence could end, if human beings harnessed their collective power. We know that human beings have great potential and individuals have ability to overcome and even thrive after tragedy.
I think the trouble with Unetaneh tokef is that it can’t be ignored. We can’t declare we don’t believe it, because we know it is true. We can’t ignore it, because the tragedies of years past call out to us. And we can’t simply turn the page, because we know, we can effect change.
This truth for me was made ever more real this year as my eyes glanced toward a writing in the prayer book by my teacher Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l. Rabbi Panken died in a plane crash this past May. He wrote in the study section for Unataneh tokef in our new Machzor, “Our actions help us live in such a way that when we suffer life’s darkest depredations, we will always have ways of coping with them. Our actions may not change the ultimate outcome one iota, but they alter our attitude, bolster our ability to withstand challenges, help us handle unavoidable misfortunes better and see life’s value amid chaos and dismay.”
May the coming Shabbat and the observance of Yom Kippur help us all to see life’s value, each and every day, amid a world that can be full of chaos and dismay.
Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler