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Need a Reason to Repent? The Answer—No Matter Who You Are—Can Be Found Here

The poem ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ reminds us that we can change our own character, even if we cannot completely control our future

Helen Plotkin
September 03, 2013
David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

On the High Holidays, we read a poem known by its first two words in Hebrew: Unetaneh TokefLet Us Cede Power. It was written about a thousand years ago by an unknown author in Northern Europe. Whether one comes to synagogue in order to hear it, or stays away in order not to, the poem epitomizes the High Holiday prayer services for many contemporary Jews. In particular, this compelling and troubling passage from the middle of the poem looms large:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who 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 drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.

The era when Unetaneh Tokef was written was a precarious time for the Jews, full of massacres and forced conversions. The High Holiday liturgy is packed with poems written in this period. In the scheme of things, they are relatively new additions. After all, Jews were celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for a long time before these poems existed. Unetaneh Tokef is not from the Bible and it’s not from the Talmud; it’s just one poem, written by one obscure author, and its imagery comes from one imagination. But, like it or not, that imagery has stuck. Why? Because Unetaneh Tokef gives voice to what we really experience as we contemplate the future.

We look toward the coming year and we have no idea what will have happened by the time we next look back. This is true every minute of our lives, but Rosh Hashanah brings it to our attention. At this time next year, something will have happened—for good, for bad, or just for a change. If not this year—chas v’shalom—then in some future year, there will be upheaval, there will be loss. It is built into the system. In the words of Rabbi Linda Potemken, leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Media, Pa., “the prognosis for carbon-based life forms is not good.” We know this, but most of the time we hide it away.

Imagine the text above without the first and last lines. The entire passage is a list of questions. And the questions are not rhetorical. No believer and no atheist, no scientist and no magician knows the answers. Any of those things might happen. In fact, they will happen. And some of them will happen in your very own life. Once they have happened, they will turn out to have been the story of your life. Each of us is living in a story whose plot we do not know. Our choices and actions are part of that plot, but we are not the omniscient authors of the major arcs.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written. The metaphor of God as a writer and life as a written text is a very old one. When Moses pleads with God to spare the generation that has built the golden calf, he says, “and if not, erase me from the book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:32) At first glance, the idea of life as a book that God has written goes against our experience. We sense that we direct our own steps, that the outcomes are related to the decisions we make and the decisions other people make, and that both the good news and the bad news in our lives are influenced by chance.

Putting aside the issues of fate and free will, however, there is another part of our experience that finds perfect expression in the Book of Life metaphor. You know that in reality there is only one life story that is yours. Though it has yet to unfold, and whether or not it is preordained, the story of “what will have happened” is real. I sit here today and I wonder: What will my life be like one year, one decade, from now? When I turn the next page, there may be a tragedy that makes everything I strive for today seem worthless. Or maybe there will be a wonderful surprise that makes my striving irrelevant. There will be exactly one future, and it is impossible to grasp. How should I live right now, given this uncertainty?

Of course, the future is always out of our hands. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are no different from other times in that way. But like many Jewish holidays they are a training ground for living all year. For 10 days we are in intensive training on this point: Something will happen and we don’t know what. We are in a plot, and we don’t get to write it. We would very much like to be in control of our own lives, but the fact is we are not. The great joys and sorrows will happen largely without our consent.

What difference, then, can teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah possibly make?

Even if they don’t change the plot of your story, they do change your character. That is, they make you a more worthwhile character in your own story. It’s not the plot that determines whether a work of literature is great or not so great. When you read a novel, you don’t appreciate the characters on the basis of whether they live long lives with no loss. What you appreciate is the depth and richness of the characters’ lives. Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah can change your story into one worth reading. They can introduce the forms of thought and expression that make your story eloquent. They can make you part of a well-written novel, one about good characters grappling with serious issues.

Teshuvah—repentence, response, return—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.

Tefillah—prayer—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.

Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.

Some translations imply that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah can change the plot. For example, here is the line as it appears in the Birnbaum machzor, used for decades in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues: “But repentance, prayer, and charity cancel the stern decree.” However, the Hebrew is clear. It is not the decree that is transformed, it is the badness of the decree. And “deflect” is a more precise translation than “cancel.” Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah deflect the badness of the decree by changing the focus from our powerless suffering to our power of response.

On Yom Kippur it is sealed. For 10 days we live with excruciating awareness of the fact that our stories will include suffering, without any promise that we will be comforted. On Yom Kippur we give ourselves over completely to this truth. And then we close that book. We move on to the most life-affirming period in the Jewish calendar: Sukkot. We take with us the truth that we must cede power, but we don’t cede all of it. Even when we can’t change the plot, it is the strength of our character that can make the story rich and strong. It is not what will happen to you that makes your life meaningful. That power is in your hands, as you cultivate the self to whom it will happen. Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are there to help you write yourself into a role worth reading.

Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches at Swarthmore College and at Mekom Torah, a Philadelphia-area Jewish community learning project. She edited and annotated In This Hour, a collection of early writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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