My favorite prayer on the Holy Days is the “unetaneh tokef”. I have come to see its’ language and meaning as one of the “the” central messages of Yom Kippur, even the entire Holiday period. It is a prayer that, to me, symbolizes the fact that, while we cannot control so much of what happens to us in life, we can control the choices of how we react to the randomness that life throws at us. In fact, I think the prayer re-inforces the idea that how we choose to react to the randomness of life determines the type of person we become. While we cannot control our genetic makeup or the family into which we were born, we do have the power and freedom to choose a path of life. That is what Yom Kippur is really about. A Torah reading from Deuteronomy on Yom Kippur reflects this central message: that of choice. The famous line from that Torah reading: “u’v’charta chaiim” (choose life) underscores this most powerful of Jewish values. We often overlook the “b” part of that verse which reminds us that what we choose and how we choose impacts others, especially, those who follow us. This is a major issue for us as we age: what do we wish to leave behind? What will our legacy be?
Part of the challenge of Yom Kippur, and these ten days, is the chance to evaluate and reflect on the issues and thoughts that bind us, inhibit us from moving forward in life. So many of us live parts of our life in a land that is too often occupied too much by regret. Like Isaac on Rosh HOshonnah, we are often too “bound” by issues, thoughts, pasts, that keep us from choosing life. Yes, there are circumstances that do prevent us from moving forward, in a sense. So many of us are bound by job restrictions, care-giving responsibilities and relational constraints. But, as the prayers remind us, we can choose how we deal with these realities. Attitude is often everything. In his book “Staring At The Sun”, Irvin Yalom writes that: “You and you alone are responsible for the crucial aspects of your life situation, and only you have the power to change it. And even if you face overwhelming external restraints, you still have the freedom and the choice of adopting various attitudes toward those situations”
All of us have lived quite a bit of life. We understand that choices in life are difficult and get more consequential as we grow older. Yet, Yom Kippur reminds us that we do choose the life we have and we can choose how we react to that life situation. None of us knows what the year that is beginning will hold for us. We can plan, and as all of us know, the Yiddish expression that “God laughs” at these plans is more often true than false. So, as this new year emerges and evolves, let us all try and make choices that enhance life and embrace the sacred. That is what that Shofar sound at the end of “N’ilah” is calling us to do. The “t’kiah g’dolah” is for each of us, in our own way, to have the courage to make choices for life.
Have an easy Fast and accept our best for a year of health and joy and peace.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.MIn
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.