By Clifford S. Fishman
Special to WJW
B’Rosh Hashanah yikateyvun,Uv-yom tzom kippur yeychateymun.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
These words begin the third paragraph of the Unetaneh Tokef in the repetition of the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That prayer continues:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born … Who shall live and who shall die; … 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 shall become poor and who shall wax rich; who shall be brought low, and who shall be exalted.
At the end, we chant:
Ut’shuvah, u’tfilah, u’tzedakah, ma’arivin etroa hag’zayrah: But repentance and prayer and acts of kindness can avert the decree.
Powerful moment, but…It is an incredibly powerful moment, one of the high points in the High Holiday liturgy — even though it simply is not true. Each of us could point to many events in our own family history, let alone historical events, that contradict it. If this prayer is literally true, then last Yom Kippur God decreed that more than a million people worldwide, and nearly 200,000 Americans, would die this year from COVID-19, and countless millions more would be impoverished or left homeless.
The Unetaneh Tokef cannot be true. Surely the rabbis who included it in the liturgy, and the people who over the centuries chanted this prayer on the High Holy Days, knew it cannot be true. So why is this prayer in our liturgy? Why is chanting this prayer together — with hundreds of fellow Jews in synagogues crowded to capacity all over the world (alas, not this year) — such a highlight of our worship?
I cannot speak for the rabbis who composed this prayer and included it in the liturgy. I can only offer my own thoughts.
This passage belongs in the liturgy, I believe, and is so powerful and so moving, not in spite of the fact that we know the world does not work that way, but because we know, as our ancestors knew, that the world does not work that way. This prayer belongs in our liturgy, it seems to me, because it expresses our profound wish that things were that way — that good people would always be rewarded and evil people would be punished, and that repentance, prayer and righteousness could guarantee us a year of life and health and achievement.
But this prayer does more than merely express a wish. It also issues a challenge: It challenges us to live our lives as if repentance, prayer and righteousness could give us that guarantee. That challenge, ultimately, is its power.
We have very little control over the impersonal forces and random events that may uproot us or disrupt our lives. But teshuvah and t’filah and tzedakah —repentance and prayer and acts of kindness — these are things we can control; these are things we can do. If we accept that challenge: if we do repent the hurt we have caused to others and to ourselves, and try to make amends; if we do pray for the strength to not repeat those hurts in the year to come; and if we do perform acts of kindness to others, then, no matter what actually happens to us, we will have helped in the task of tikkun olam, the healing of the world.
May we all be sealed for a good year.
Clifford S. Fishman, a long-time member of Congregation Tikvat Israel, is a professor emeritus of law at Catholic University of America.