On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall attain the measure of his and who shall not
Who shall perish by fire and who by water
Who by sword and who by beast
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by earthquake and who by plague
Who by strangling and who by stoning
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich
Who shall be humbled and who exalted
But teshuvah, tefillah and tzedekah cause to pass over the evil of the decree.
The theology of the Unetane Tokef–which appears in both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy–has always troubled me–how can we accept that tefillah (prayer) and teshuvah (repentance) and tzedekah (acts of righteousness, usually translated as “charity”) are going to save us from earthquakes, car accidents, persecution? We know that lots of very good people suffer every day, and that many people who do horrible things prosper. One could write off the prayer as reflective of an era in which people found solace in trying to control their fate, but I think that’s unfair and dismissive of the liturgy.
I wonder if, instead, we should regard it as a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it’s written in the first person, it’s in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.
What if it weren’t about my individual repentance as it affects my individual fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate? What if the reason a person gets cancer is not because he or she personally has done something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water, and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence? Are the tsunami of two years ago and the hurricanes of last year a sign that entire sections of the world were filled with sinners, or a tragic by-product of global warming? Are the women killed by stoning–yes, today–in honor killings around the world guilty of insufficient prayer, or should we assign responsibility to everyone who perpetuates a culture in which this is considered acceptable? Are the war refugees (like those fleeing the genocide in Darfur or the Lost Boys of Sudan) who sometimes fall to wild beasts personally responsible for their situation, their fate? Of course not.
I’m not sure that I believe that, were we a perfect world of perfect souls, nobody would ever die young or suffer for any reason. That’s naive, and, in any case, I personally don’t conceive of God as a guy up in the sky with a roll of dice (or a “good” and “bad” list, like Santa Claus). But I do think that the Unetane Tokef prayer points at the ways in which we are–as a collective–responsible for our own suffering or for preventing it, for impacting the degree to which evil besets us. We can’t change the decree itself, but perhaps we can avert its severity.
We need teshuvah–literally, “returning”, to return to God–to face the reality of who we are, how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship both to God and other people. We need tefillah (prayer) to align our wills with the Divine will, to remember that we are on this Earth to serve, not to please ourselves. We need tzedekah (charity, righteousness) to enact, in part, this service–by caring for others we care for God.
It’s not necessarily about saving our individual selves. We’re not in control of that, really. The liturgy continues:
The human’s origin is dust and his end is dust, at the risk of his life he earns his bread, he is like a broken vessel of clay, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a drifting cloud, a fleeting breath, scattering dust, a transient dream….
Which isn’t to say that there is not individual responsibility. The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that â€œWhoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is considered liable for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is considered liable for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is considered liable for [the sins of] the whole world.â€ It’s not enough simply not to sin. We must take active steps in preventing others from causing harm–else, their transgression becomes our own.
What will do you do help avert the evil sure to be present in the coming year?
This is excellent and thought-provoking stuff; thank you. For a long time I found the unetaneh tokef prayer theologically problematic; over the last few years I have come to love it anyway, and to experience it again as powerful even though I don’t necessarily accept its assertions as literally true. But I like what you’re doing with it here, and this resonates for me a lot.
I was thinking about this statement on first day Rosh Hashana. The fact is that, as you’ve translated it (that is, accurately), the statement never claims that the decree is passed over, but simply that the evil is passed over. The simple reading, then, might be that the bad decree is left unwritten, and a good decree replaces it. I would argue that even that is not the intent. Teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka make an interesting group. Teshuva, though certainly peformed in relation to God, is an internal, personal process. Tefilla is a process that is carried out between a person and God. And tzedaka is the classic example of a mitzvah between people. So, there we have the religious life in a nutshell: the internal, the external with God, and the external with other people. I would put forth that the unetaneh tokef prayer is making a powerful statement about perspective. Live the religious lifestyle, and your perspective will be like that of Rabbi Akiva. Gam zu leTov. This, too, is for the good.
Instead of praying that our situation change, we pray so that we can appreciate our situation. Its not so different than the very-commonly-mistranslated Baruch Dayan HaEmet bracha. This bracha does not call God “the True Judge,” but “the Judge of Truth.” The implication is that at the moment we hear bad news, we recognize that our perspective is a very limited one. We don’t judge by truth. God does, and so we accept that judgement as, in some ways, positive.
I happen to love U’netaneh Tokef, and the problem that you’re discussing is not at all a problem if you read that paragraph in teh context of hte first one. There is in reality a far greater problem.
The first paragraph discusses how everything is called into judgement, and how nothing, not even the angels, can justify their existence in judgement. Therefore, all of existence is simply the result of God’s will and he can do whatever he wants. Therefore, he decrees, who will live and who will die, etc. Given that, the evil of the decree which we can affect is not the bad things that happen (ie. death, suffering, poverty) but the inheirent evilness of something that is entirely arbitrary. The question that the prayer begs is how can we make meaning out of a life that is only a gift and has no essential nature?
The answer the paytan gives is – Repentence Prayer and Charity eliminate the evilness of the decree. Meaning, that even if life is entirely arbitrary, by doing the right thing, by doing good, we can give it meaning.
That’s pretty radical thought, not in step with most Jewish thinkers, but it is fascinating.
right. MAavirin et roah hagezeirah, they take the bad out of the decree. Not that they need to or can change what actually happens. I feel like alot of the high holiday work is making peace with god and the world, clearing the self of all the resentments that can be let go of by apologizing for everything, taking responsibility in a way, and then letting go of blame. And whatever isn’t atoned for has to change.
I think of this prayer as a wake up call. It’s the only way I’ve been able to “come to terms” with its theology. To me, it’s a reminder that this could be the year, or even the day, when we last have the chance to appreciate and live our lives, and do the tshuvah and giving that we have “planned” to do someday… so to me, it’s a statement of how life is (fleeting), which then inspires us to act now…. a descriptive statement, followed by an imperative…
Oh honestly, I’ve been writing this one in my head the whole of RH, and you’ve beat me to it 🙂
It’s important to remember that Tanach, as explained talmudically, gives at least four reasons for suffering:
1. Punishment suffered by the nation as a whole for national sin;
2. Punishment suffered by the individual for his/her own sin;
3. Punishment suffered by children for sins of their parents (which the children have continued, according to the talmudic note on this);
4. Suffering brought upon a person by circumstance.
So my teshuvah/tefilah/tzedakah may take care of 2 and 3, and in part it may handle 1, but it’s never going to handle 4.