I have never lived through a year like this year—I know I’m not alone. Our lives changed in a flash for reasons far beyond our control. People have been laid off—including some of us here together— and some of those jobs will never return. The relief packages, as usual, favored the wealthy rather than those in actual need. Our elders are isolated in ways none of us ever imagined, and people who live alone are suffering serious consequences from that social isolation. We hail essential workers as heroes, or even superheroes, but too often they lack adequate PPE, and too often they can’t quarantine from a loved one who has COVID. A host of other fall-out is happening from this that is STILL beyond our control.
Then, as my vet’s office posted a sign recently, “Mother Nature, welcome to the 2020 party”— 10,000 lightning strikes sparked over 600 fires across the state, and over five thousand homes have been lost up and down the West Coast, and lots of us haven’t been able to go outside because of the residue of all those losses in the air. The Gulf Coast experienced one of the worst hurricanes in its history. Iowa lost 10 million acres (43%!) of its crops to a derecho, a weather phenomenon I’d never heard of before.
We’re in the midst of the Amidah, where we share our deepest gratitude and pain with the Ruler or God of Israel, 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.
All these experiences are a part of this prayer. Who by fire, who by water? We know that. The first four people to die from the lightning fires died when trees fell on them—instantaneous, totally unexpected deaths. Who by plague, who by beast, or knee in the neck? We know that too.
Who will be calm and who feel storm-tossed? Sheltering in place has led to a vast increase in mental health issues, many based on social isolation or loss of jobs. But I know someone who battles various emotional issues who is excited by the Zoom photography classes she is taking.
And then the prayer hints that God strikes the guilty. No, no, no, NO.
I’ve lost family members to painful deaths who had suffered anguish while alive. For years, I hated this moment of the service. I don’t believe in a God who would cause them to suffer.
I don’t accept a vision of a God who decided that anyone deserved to die alone of COVID or to suffer the miseries of social isolation while… General Pinochet of Chile lived a long life.
However, I experienced a sea change in my approach to the prayer poem, and I offer it to you now.
In seminary, I dove into the language of the piyyut. The overwhelming beauty of the piyyut’s imagery washed over me and into me. Its message 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 piyyutintentionally uses the passive voice – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Spoiler alert: Every one of us is going to die at some point. From what I heard last night, many of us have lost loved ones this past year. 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. We can stop smoking. But we can stop paying attention for an instant and we can be hit by a bus, or fall and get a brain injury. We could—we have—experienced fires, droughts, earthquakes or pandemics.
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. 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 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 the key moment when the liturgist tells us: it’s up to us. We learn that teshuvah, tzedakahand tefillah 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. 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 harshness but keep us on course, and indeed help us avert a psychological death as we live 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”. I 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. When we’ve done that wrong thing, we have to find a way home. That act of turning toward home, toward our pure soul, toward our center…that’s the essence of teshuvah.
Prayer, tefillah, is the spiritual aspect of teshuvah that speaks to repairing our relationship with God, asking for a healing of that rift, seeking reconnection. We can also see it as the chance to express our innermost needs and gratitude and to recognize that we can’t do this alone. It can be an acknowledgement that we do not control everything.
Tzedakah comes from the same root as tzedek—justice. We can think of it 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…is, perhaps, the hardest part of all. It requires us to face those we have hurt.
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 happensdifferently. These spiritual practices help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.
As a hospital chaplain, I’ve been with people as they deal with horrific news. One man with stomach cancer had to give up his job, but then dedicated himself to serving his church community. A breast cancer survivor chose to serve as a spiritual care volunteer at the hospital. It’s that attitude that softens the decree, or the hand we’re dealt, as well as surrounding us with community.
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, how we act. Our limits are real, but our possibilities for transformation are no less real.
May we open our hearts wide enough to find our way home, to our centers. May we recognize the possibilities of change in our lives and use our traditions to find balance as we make those changes.
 Alan Lew. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 14.