For many modern worshippers, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is problematic. Yes, there are beautiful melodies introducing it, as well as a comforting image of God counting each individual person as a shepherd counts the individual sheep in their flock, but what most of us focus on is the paragraph that begins, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will pass on and how many will be born…” and that “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”
Especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which occurred two weeks before the High Holidays that year, people like my father, who had been quietly bothered by the recitation, realized they weren’t alone. Our connection to God and our sense of God’s protection was suddenly and emphatically called into question. The idea that any of the people who perished were sinners was reprehensible.
As times and circumstances have changed — most of us in the U.S. aren’t in danger of dying by sword or wild beast — alternative interpretations of “who by fire and who by water” have been written. “Who will have dementia and who will be clear of mind?” “Who by cancer and who by heart disease?” “Who by contaminated water sources and who by oppressive heat?”
Modern questions for modern times, but it still smacks of a theology that doesn’t resonate with many of today’s Jews, and perhaps didn’t resonate when it was first conceived as part of the liturgy.
This is the prayer that terrified me at 10 years old, when on Erev Kol Nidre, I was inconsolable from fear that I and my family might not be “sealed in the Book of Life” for goodness and health. Fifty years later, I’ve developed an understanding of this prayer as a reminder that we live in a random world, that “stuff happens,” and we’re not necessarily in control. The idea that Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah (repentance, prayer and acts of charity) can impact a Divine decree doesn’t fit with my idea of how God operates in our lives, but these three acts can have a significant impact on how we live our lives moving forward.
A sentence in the Unetaneh Tokef, which most of us gloss over, says that “God opens the book of Remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own words have signed the page.” We are the ones writing in this book, and the idea that we can be the authors of our own futures is quite awe-inspiring in itself.
What do I wonder about? Will I be crippled with arthritis or be able to move freely? Will my sight or my hearing go first? Will I be spending my last days alone or with family and friends? Will I look back on a life having been worth living, or one full of regret? And… what am I going to do about it now?
Teshuvah — Turning or repentance: I’m going to work on creating healthy eating and exercise habits to support my aging body and brain.
Tefillah — Prayer, spirituality: I’m going to take time for mindfulness, and pray for the inner strength to stay on a health course as much as possible, and to see physical changes as opportunities.
Tzedaka — Charity, giving back: I’ll support causes that help to make a difference in people’s lives, and I’ll continue to use my rabbinic training to help people become their best selves.
There are no guarantees in life, but we can do our best to be the authors of our future inscribed in a book of life, not carved in stone.
May the new year of 5780 be for blessing and peace, health, happiness and prosperity.