On this holiest night of the year, we stand solitary, alone before God, just as we do when we die. We cannot hide behind power and position tonight. We do not face this day as a president, rabbi, mother, or child. Our essence is revealed before God. We face Yom Kippur alone because it is a rehearsal for death. The Torahs are clothed in white. The clergy wear white robes. We wear white not just as a symbol of purity but to remind us of the shrouds we will wear when we are buried. Like the dead, we have no need for food, so we fast and prepare to face God. Step by step throughout this day we are led closer to our imagining our end. Finally, during the morning service, we recite the cornerstone of our High Holyday liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef, literally meaning “We give power.” For over a thousand years, we have annually recited the fateful words, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die.” “This is the central truth of the High Holy Days. This is what makes them days of terror. We are vulnerable. We are finite and fragile. The facts of human existence that matter most are out of our control. We do not decide when we will be born. Neither do we determine when we shall die. Health and sickness, wellness and brokenness are not our choosing. We invest ourselves in the lives of others, we love them and need them, but not matter how hard we try, we cannot protect them from the world and its accidents.”
On Yom Kippur, the terrifying truth of the human condition is thrust upon us. All year long, we pretend we are in control. Our titles, uniforms, degrees, and wallets give us the pretense that we can have power over events. This observance strips us of all illusion. We face our humanness as we confront the truth that our existence is finite. We are commanded to confront the truth of about ourselves, to strip away the excuses, to put an end to the rationalizations, and to face what we choose to avoid the rest of the year. “The message is we do not live forever. Repent now; repair the broken relationships of our lives; return to the wholeness of our full selves. Let us begin today, because death looms above all life. The Unetaneh Tokef urges us to confront our mortality, see ourselves in a true light, and to face God.”
When we look at this prayer, attributed to Rabbi Amnon, but more likely written in the sixth century by Yannai, a Jew who lived in Byzantine occupied Israel, one of the great writers of liturgical poems, we see God as “judge, arbiter, auditor, and grand inquisitor. The great book of life is opened and our actions for the year are examined. God decides if this year we are worthy of a renewed grant of life. God decides if this will be a year of plenty or poverty, of sickness or health, or rest or toil. God decides and His decision is recorded. Before the decree is sealed, however, we have three appeals- repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds. God’s decision can be litigated. Vigorous appeal just might change God’s mind. Most Jews read the prayer this way. Even those Jews who have long ago abandoned traditional theologies still harbor fearful images of God. After all, we were once small children, completely dependent upon the goodwill of all powerful adults. That sense of being judged for life and death still lives deep within us.”
If this is the only possible meaning of the Unetaneh Tokef, most of us would never read it. It connects our fate during this coming year to our behavior and places our destiny into God’s hands. Did God decide that my mother should have cancer or my neighbor should be murdered? Did God decide that the tsunami should kill hundreds of thousands in Asia that Hutus should murder Tutsis in Rwanda and Sunni murder Shia in Iraq? Did God decide that a mad man should slaughter 77 young Norwegians? What kind of sin did one and a half million Jewish children possibly commit to deserve death at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators? If this was its only meaning it would be obscene.
The Unetaneh Tokef tells us we are vulnerable and do not control the course of our lives. It tells us that our destiny is in God’s hands. There is, however, a powerful conclusion that changes everything: And repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree. While the decree stands, “What God has given us are three tools for ameliorating and thereby transcending the harsh facts of human life.”
Teshuvah– The eminent Viennese psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, whose classic, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was published in 1946, a year after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, wondered why some prisoners were able to maintain a sense of hope and their inner strength while others despaired and lost their will to live. He affirmed the “truth that while we may not decide the conditions of our existence, we always possess the freedom to interpret those conditions and the freedom to choose our response. I may not choose what happens to me in life, but I can choose how I respond. My character is mine to control. There are those who melt at the slightest disappointment or setback. There are others who have suffered immeasurably and yet maintain their optimism and hope…Even when life brings us loss and pain, we can choose to sink into bitterness or to transcend tragedy and rise to a life of purpose and hope. We can be self-absorbed, nursing the resentments of victimhood or we can reach out to others in love and caring.”
Each of us knows those who exemplify these responses to misfortune. Perhaps we count ourselves among the hopeful, who take what life throws at us and still are able to smile. We are able to take the proverbial lemon and make lemonade from it. I know many in our congregation, those of you sitting here and listening to this, who epitomize this response to pain. I also know others who nurture every heartbreak and will not let go of their sadness. We choose how we respond to events. “This freedom lifts us above the fragility of life to a level of meaning. This is teshuvah.
Bernie Mazer has led our daily morning minyan for the last fifteen years. We are the only Reform synagogue in Greater Baltimore to have a daily prayer service, a fact of which I am exceedingly proud. Countless numbers of Jews continue to seek shelter from life’s storms and comfort from life’s hurts by sharing their pain with God. Certainly, those who attend the morning minyan can pray at home or on their way to work. So why do they attend day in and day out? “While we cannot alter the fundamental facts of the human condition, we need not suffer alone. We hold hands, shed tears, lift our voices and cry together. In doing so, we lift one another out of the darkness towards the light. In prayer, we transcend loneliness and alienation. We discover the warm consolation of a loving community.” This is tefilah.
Tsedakah– literally means “righteousness.” It refers to all charitable acts we perform, whether we give a donation or do a good deed. “These acts accumulate. They have an undetectable resonance. Each act of goodness creates a wave that echoes through existence. We are not necessarily aware on what shores the wave will land. When we perform a selfless act of goodness, we are doing God’s work. We become partners with God in healing hurt, easing pain, and restoring faith. This is tsedakah.
“Human life is fragile, vulnerable, and finite. We possess three divine gifts that enable us to transcend the limitations of the human condition. We are free to shape our response to events. We are able to share our common suffering in prayer and song. We are equipped to heal and help one another by bringing a measure of peace to the world. As we recite the Unetaneh Tokef tomorrow morning, we affirm the value of human existence as well as our faith that God is present within and among us.”[i]
May this Yom Kippur be for each one of us a day full of meaning, transcendence, and hope. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
L’shana Tova Tikateivu v’Cheitameinu.
[i] All quotations are from “Who by Fire, Who by Water,” edited by Rabbi Larry Hoffman. The essays quoted are written by Rabbi Edward Fuld, page 145-150, and Rabbi David Wolpe, page 182-184.