About a year ago, my house nearly burned down. Our pool equipment caught fire in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. Had my daughter Olya not been home (as she normally wouldn’t have been) and acted with courage and presence of mind, our home and everything in it would have gone up in smoke. We were all shaky for about a week, aware of the bullet we’d just dodged. We felt blessed for some reason, although we recognize it was not a matter of blessing, because we don’t accept that others whose homes do burn down are cursed.
In just a few minutes, we will enter the Amidah or standing prayer. It’s the heart – the core – of the service, where we share our deepest gratitude and pain with our Creator. On the High Holy Days, it contains some important additions, and one addresses powerfully this issue. The Unetaneh Tokef, a piyyut, or prayer/poem, goes straight to the issue of who will live and who will die and how, in masterful poetry that is delivered in haunting music.
Before rabbinic school, I was part of a lay leadership team that co-led High Holy Day services. When we came to this moment of the service, I would quietly leave the sanctuary to take a break, because this prayer enraged me. I could not handle the whole “Who by fire, who by water” section, when not only does God decide who will die but how. We can agree that we have no control over death – we all die someday, and most of us do not choose the moment of our death. But for me, it was the how of this prayer, that would send me over the edge.
You see, both of my parents died badly, my father when he was only 40 and I was 12, and my mother at 53, a few years younger than I am now. I cannot accept a vision of a God who decided that they deserved to die in such pain and misery, or that a child should die from starvation, or a woman of gang rape in the Congo, or a family to a bomb blast while… General Pinochet of Chile lived a long life. As many of us have murmured when this prayer is uttered, if this is your God, I don’t want Him.
Over the past few years, I have experienced a sea change in my approach to the prayer poem, thanks to two lessons from my liturgy teacher.
The first lesson was that the origin of the poem is NOT the myth that is mentioned in our machzor. Rather than being related to a martyr of the Crusades, it is most likely the work of a prolific liturgist in Israel (or Palestine at the time) in the 6th Century CE. It was similar to other poems written at the time that both extolled God’s greatness and acknowledged our human limits. I can live with that message.
The second lesson came through the word-for-word translation exercise he assigned. Surrounded for hours by translations from every movement of Judaism and an English-Hebrew dictionary, I experienced a transformation. The overwhelming beauty of the piyyut’s imagery washed over me and into me. They are what Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig calls “an artistic wrestling with impermanence and death, with deeds and their consequences, with power and powerlessness, with fear and reassurance, with mistakes and second chances.” Its message, similar to several psalms, squarely puts our own responsibility for our actions in a primary place. These books of life and death are open, and it is OUR signature, based on our actions, that is on every page. God does not do this choosing: the piyyut intentionally uses the passive voice – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Every one of us is going to die at some point. Hopefully for most of us not next year. But we don’t know. We do know we have almost no control over that. We have some control: we can eat right, exercise, take our medications, see the doctor or healer regularly. We can stop smoking. But we could step off the curb tomorrow, and be blindsided. We could experience fires, earthquakes and epidemics, or be sitting in the stands at an air race.
But there are some key areas in which we DO have significant control. First, we can invoke the power – the tokef– and the opportunity of this day. We can recognize what these days are really about. Jewish tradition expects us to live a righteous life every day, but the rabbis understood it’s easy to let things go, let things accumulate. So those masters of the sacred power of time created a spiritual calendar in which every holiday allows us to spend some concerted effort on an aspect of our soul’s work. These are the days when we inspect our lives, explore where we want to be better, where we have fallen short, and in this prayer especially, where our frailties are. These are the days when we come face to face with the reality that there are consequences for our actions, that we may have hurt others, damaged ourselves and that it is our work to repair what we can.
These are also the days when we look at our inner resources: Can we face the day when our children are sick or our parents die or we lose our jobs, or our pensions, or our homes? Can we brave the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or every day life, or will we take arms against a sea of troubles?
Midway through the piyyut is one of the key moments when the liturgist tells us – it’s up to us. We learn that teshuvah – turning, tzedakah – justice and tefillah – prayer sweeten or soften the evil of the decree. Some translations say that it will “avert” or “change” the decree, and that seems unlikely. But “soften” works: it’s not that if we just pray enough or turn enough, we won’t get cancer or diabetes. While the prayer acknowledges the reality that our lives will end in death and that we may suffer the consequences of the imbalances of our life, it tells us that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah are the centering, stabilizing forces that not only mitigate life’s harsh decree but keep us on course, and indeed help us avert a psychological death as we live in the fullness of our lives. Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) noted that these activities won’t change what happens to us; they actually change us. We will understand what happens differently. These spiritual practices will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.
I know or knew two women, both Jewish, both born in 1928, both good women. My mother grew up in New York City, with an large extended family who immigrated from all over eastern Europe. Her life was a nice, upper middle class existence, marred in some ways, by divorce before it became accepted, raising three daughters alone, but for the most part not so bad from the outside. Eva meanwhile got out of Berlin right after Kristallnacht in a harrowing escape to Shanghai. Both Mom and Eva had challenging families growing up. My mother battled severe depression all of my life, before she died at 53. Eva not only withstood the challenges life threw at her, but continues in her 80s to thoroughly engage in life.
What makes some souls troubled while others can find peace? How exactly DO teshuvah, tzedakah and tefillah work?
The rabbis proposed that teshuvah was one of the items created before the universe: It’s about knowing when our souls are in exile. In the words of R. David Wolfe Blank (z”l), it’s about returning to the core essence of who we are, and losing those qualities we pick up that distort our essential being. We can turn toward God, turn away from temptations, if we keep our eyes constantly on the prize. But we’re human, and as King Solomon said, what human does not sin? So then we have to ask for forgiveness of whomever we’ve hurt.
And when someone asks forgiveness from us – we should be quick to forgive. The Zohar, the medieval mystical commentary on the Torah, tells the story of a man traveling on a hot day… He got tired and sat down on a rock and fell asleep. A snake slithered toward him, but then a gust of wind caused a tree branch to snap, fall and kill the snake. When the man awoke and stood up, the rock shifted and fell over the cliff behind. Rabbi Abba saw what happened and asked the man, “What is your merit that you have been saved from death twice?” The man replied, “I never fail to make peace with those who harm me. I become their friend and repay good for evil. And before I go to sleep, I forgive all who require forgiveness.” What would it look like if we were able to repay good for evil, and forgive everyone who injured us at bedtime? This is part of the bedtime Shema (part of our traditional tefillah practice), that we review the day and see if there’s anything we need to fix tomorrow and anything we need to let go of tonight. If we can find the compassion to forgive, to find the good in others, we can begin to let go of the resentment or anger that we carry.
Tzedakah—from the same root as tzedek—justice—is the act of doing the right thing – even when no one else is watching. It’s about contributing to a better world. It invites reciprocity: the more good we do, the more we encourage the people around us to do the same, and the stronger and more centered we all become. And the stronger and more centered the community and ultimately the world.
Prayer, tefillah, offers us the chance to express our innermost needs and gratitude. When said in community, it can help to pull us back from the emotional abyss, allowing us to regain balance in life. During the month of Elul, the month preceding this month, we traditionally read Psalm 27, which includes a verse that says
4One thing I ask of God,
only that do I seek:
to live in God’s house
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon God’s beauty,
to frequent or visit God’s temple.
The rabbis ask, Why does the psalmist ask to LIVE in God’s house, but then only to frequent it? One answer compares two types of Jew: the ones who come to services regularly and the ones who come only for the High Holy Days. Each comes with strengths and challenges in terms of prayer. The first group, the regular prayers, who live in God’s house, they know the liturgy cold, they can join in and lift the community, but too often, we pray by rote, getting through it rather than getting to the heart of it. The second group, those who come for these Holy Days, drawn to our community of praying Jews for a variety of reasons, don’t know the liturgy and often feel alienated from it. But they also bring a freshness and an attitude of exploration.
I pray that each group manages to find that attitude of exploration and an intention to use these prayers to lift each other and guide ourselves to transformation.
We don’t have control over how we die or when we die, but we do have a choice about how we live and how we act. Our limits are real, but our possibilities for transformation are no less real. May we see ourselves connected to those around us, may we see the possibilities of change in our lives and use our traditions to find balance as we make those changes.
 At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA. I am particularly grateful for Joe Berland, Joanne Greene, Danny Greene, Fred Ross-Perry and Kory Zipperstein. We stood on the shoulders of Steve and Bonni Schiff.
 Machzor: Challenge and Change, CCAR, 2009, p. 64.
 Alan Lew. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 14.