A couple of weeks ago, up at Kaiser, I was sitting with a 50 year old woman—let’s call her Susie—in the waiting room of the ICU, where she had spent most of the last several days with her 88 year old mom. They lived down the street from each other, saw or talked to each other every day. Mom came with her and her kids to every soccer game, every softball game. Mom had called her at 3:30 am that Wednesday morning to say she was in horrible pain. So they drove to the ER, and the doctors diagnosed a kidney stone; easily dealt with the next morning. So Susie left her mom for the procedure, went to work, saw her kids and returned alone to the hospital. When she arrived, the three doctors caring for her mom came together to give her—all by herself—the news that her mother was in multiple organ failure and there was nothing they could do. It had nothing to do with the procedure—they hadn’t gotten that far. Within hours, their whole family—5 siblings, 13 grandchildren and 3 greats, and their friends gathered around their mom, grandma and great-grandma, friend… Susie told me that had someone told her on Tuesday evening that on this day, this Saturday, she would be agreeing to remove the equipment that was keeping her beloved mother alive, she would have told them they were crazy. And yet, here she was.
The Amidah is the heart—the core—of our service, where we share our deepest gratitude and pain with this King—or God—however you envision or relate to this holiness. On the High Holy Days, it contains important additions, and one of these is the Unetaneh Tokef, a piyyut, or prayer/poem, that talks about who will live and who will die and how.
And Susie’s family’s story is at the core of this prayer. We wake up some morning and maybe our whole world turns upside down, through no fault of our own. Her mother lived a wonderful life, I understood from all the stories, and dying at 88 surrounded by loved ones is not a bad way to go.
But we know about “bad” ways to go. The people who die—or live—in deep emotional pain, the Syrian child trying to reach safety from the civil war, the two mothers in Sonoma County last month who lost control of their cars and each lost their two daughters when their cars plunged into a river. I can barely think about the pain they must be carrying. The women who want to be mothers and can’t conceive. My own family experience includes what could be called “bad deaths”, and for years, I railed against this prayer.
I cannot accept a vision of a God who decided that anyone deserved to live or die in such pain and misery 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.
And for many years, I would quietly leave the room when the prayer was uttered, whether I was part of the leadership or in the pews. However, about seven years ago, I experienced a sea change in my approach to the prayer poem, and I offer it to you now.
I learned 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 in the 6th Century CE. It is similar to other prayer 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 a word-for-word translation exercise assigned by a teacher. Surrounded 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. It is 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.” (CCAR Machzor: Challenge and Change, p. 64) 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. Some of us have lost loved ones this past year, indeed this past month, and others will lose loved ones sooner than we are ready. 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 stop paying attention for an instant and our car can slide into a river. We could—we have—experienced fires, droughts, earthquakes or epidemics.
But in some key areas we DO have significant control. First, we can invoke the power—the tokef—and the opportunity of the holiness of this day. We can recognize what these days are really about. Jewish tradition expects us to live a righteous life every day, but we know it’s easy to let things go, let things accumulate. These are the days when we inspect our lives, explore where we want to be better, where we have fallen short. These are the days when we come face to face with the reality that our actions have consequences, that we may have hurt others and damaged ourselves and that we can 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 or siblings die or we lose our jobs, or our pensions, or our homes? Can we brave the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or everyday life, or will we take arms against a sea of troubles?
Midway through the piyyut we reach what I think is the key moment when the liturgist tells us: it’s up to us. We learn that teshuvah, 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, as modern liturgist Marcia Falk writes, these virtues temper the evil of the decree—not the decree itself, but our perception of it. It’s not that if we just pray enough or turn enough, illness or disaster won’t happen. 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.
How exactly DO teshuvah, tzedakah and tefillah work?
The rabbis proposed that teshuvah was one of the items created before the universe, “as a healing force embedded in all creation that draws all things back to their source in infinite oneness”. Think of it as God knowing that we were somewhere on the evolutionary chain and we would have free will. With that free will, we would need the power of returning to that pure soul we were given. 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—however we see that holiness, turn away from temptations, if we can tap into that primordial, alchemical, process of turning. After all, when we’ve done that wrong thing—call it sin, missing the mark, hurting our loved ones—we have to find some way home. That act of turning toward home, toward our pure soul, toward our center—with the assistance of that primordial gift…that’s the essence of teshuvah.
Prayer, tefillah, is in some ways the spiritual aspect of teshuvah that speaks to repairing our relationship with God, asking for a healing of that rift, seeking reconnection. It is the chance to express our innermost needs and gratitude and to recognize that we can’t do this work alone. Studies have shown that prayer can actually make a difference in someone’s well-being.
Tzedakah—from the same root as tzedek—justice—can be seen as the moral level of teshuvah. Once we’ve turned inward, it’s time to turn outward and repair our part of the world. As Maimonides teaches, we need to acknowledge what we’ve done, feel remorse, apologize, clean up our mess. As Dr. Louis Newman describes it,
These gestures all involve giving something to the person or people we have offended…righting the scales again, restoring what we have wrongfully taken. This social aspect of teshuvah is, perhaps, the hardest part of all. It requires us to face those we have hurt and, in facing them, to humble ourselves through frank admission of wrongdoing, offering amends, and restoring what we have taken.
Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) noted that these activities—teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah—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. That is the spiritual transformation that allows us to complete Maimonides’ complete teshuvah: that when faced with the same situation, we don’t repeat whatever we did wrong.
As a hospital chaplain, I’ve been with people as they deal with horrific news and conditions, including death. I am always in awe of the people who will do everything medical science recommends, but who also choose to revel in the bosom of family and community and accept what medical science cannot do. One man with stomach cancer had to give up his job when he got sick, but then dedicated himself to serving his church community. A breast cancer survivor chose to volunteer at the hospital as a spiritual care volunteer. It’s that attitude that softens the decree, or the hand we’re dealt, as well as surrounding us with community who will then be there for us too.
We don’t generally have control over how we die or how our loved ones 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.
[I wish to express gratitude to Rabbi Pam Wax, Marcia Falk and the teachings of Dr. Louis Newman, who all contributed to enhancing my thinking about a topic I have struggled with for years, and will continue to wrestle with.]
 Marcia Falk, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Brandeis University Press, 2014.
 Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy, p. 139.
 Seeing teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah as the inner, spiritual and moral aspects of teshuvah is a revelation I received from Dr. Louis Newman’s Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah (Jewish Lights 2010). I have Rabbi Pam Wax to thank for pointing me to it.
 Alan Lew. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 14.