On Rosh Hashanah is it written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Who will live and who will die…. Who by fire and who by water.”
These words from the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer lie at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. The prayer tells us of a God who is intimately involved in human affairs. A God who knows us, who judges us, who records our sins, counts them, remembers even when we have forgotten. A God who determines our fate based on our actions.
This prayer takes on new relevance in the face of the devastating floods that have cost tens of thousands of lives this year. Is the prayer telling us that God is responsible for the deaths of so many innocent men, women and children? There has been no shortage of religious leaders who have jumped at the chance to tell us so.
Commenting on the devastation in New Orleans, Repent America director Michael Marcavage announced, “Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city.”
Louis Farrakhan proclaimed that the storm was God’s way of punishing the United States for the war in Iraq.
Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, announced that God drowned African Americans in Hurricane Katrina because they do not study Torah, and punished President Bush by bringing on the hurricane because Bush was behind Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.
If, like me, you find such statements of theology abhorrent, how are we to pray these words when we stand shoulder to shoulder in synagogue this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Should we roll our eyes at what sounds to our ears like a simplistic depiction of divine justice? Should we walk out as a statement of protest in the name of all the innocent victims who have been maligned wrongly by those who misinterpret the sentiments of this prayer? Should we rewrite the words?
I am the rabbi of an outreach organization in Los Angeles called Nashuva, which means “we will return.” Nashuva came to life as an attempt to welcome back the thousands of unaffiliated Jews in our city. It began one year ago with eight people around a dining room table and now has more than 600 individuals involved. They are young and old, men and women, singles and families, African American, white, Asian, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. But they have one thing in common: They don’t want to recite prayers by rote. They are intelligent, successful people who refuse to be treated like children in prayer. They are asking for meaning, for logic, for relevance. I actively encourage them to question the words of our tradition that ring untrue.
This is how I will be explaining the words of “Unetaneh Tokef” at Nashuva this Rosh Hashanah: When I was a child, I too believed that God was Superman, able to swoop down to protect good people and punish cruel ones. But I no longer believe in such a God. If God’s job description were the prevention of evil, then all that any of us could say is that God is doing a terrible job. Clearly the world we live in is not just. Good people die too soon. Savage people prosper.
I haven’t stopped praying the words of “Unetaneh Tokef.” I have stopped reading them as a statement about God’s hand in determining life and death. The prayer is not about God’s cruelty, but our frailty. We walk around feeling invulnerable in the face of nature’s capriciousness. This one prayer forces us to look at the potential for disaster head on. It speaks not only of life and death, but also the quality of our lives: “Who will rest and who will wander. Who will find peace and who will be tormented. Who will lose a fortune and who will gain one. Who will fall and who will rise up.” It tells us that we are mortal, that our time here is short. Everything we have can disappear in an instant. The knowledge of our mortality has the power to cripple us, but it can also inspire us to overcome our fears and live life as fully as possible.
I recently counseled a man who is crippled by his fears. He told me that he is frightened to try new things, to take risks or to apply himself. I asked him, if he were told that he only had six months to live, would he still be so frightened to take risks? He said no. He thought such devastating news would free him from the burden of his fears. “After all,” he said, “If I was dying I’d have nothing to lose by trying.” I looked at him and said, “Guess what? You are dying.”
We usually associate the words of the Psalm 23 with funerals. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no harm for You are with me.” But the psalm is not about death; it’s about life. Life is the valley of the shadow of death. We all live in that valley with full knowledge that death will be the end for us all.
A Hasidic master interpreted a verse from Psalms this way: “I will not die while I am still alive.” Death is a great tragedy, but to die while we are still alive is the greatest tragedy of all.
We die in life when we allow our fears to paralyze us. We die when we fall into ruts that leave us numb. We die when we don’t repair relationships that are in our power to heal. We die when we stop caring, when we stop dreaming, when we stop believing in our power to grow and change. We die when we grow satisfied with the way things are, when we become indifferent to injustice. We die when we stop listening to those we love, to the yearning of our own souls, to the cries of those in need, to the call of God. We die when we fail to prevent genocide. We die when we leave our poor behind in a hurricane to fend for themselves.
A new year full of hope and potential is upon us. Who will live and who will die?
Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder of Nashuva, a community of outreach, spirituality and social action in Los Angeles, and the author of “To Begin Again” (Knopf, 1998) and “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002).