By David Van Taylor
Rosh Hashana Day 1
I mentioned to a couple of people that Rabbi Lippmann had asked me to introduce the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. Their reaction was consistent: “Oh … ” they’d say. “… The controversial one.”
Spoiler alert: this is the prayer that outlines some of the things that may happen to you in the coming year—and most of them are terrible. Death. Death by fire, by sword, by beast? Death by earthquake, death by stoning. Poverty. Exile.
Maybe I shouldn’t be issuing a spoiler alert. Maybe it should be a trigger warning. On the other hand—just read the newspaper, people.
The prayer does mention some good things that might happen: security, enrichment, exaltation. But each of these is coupled with a terrible, opposite thing. “Who shall be tranquil? … and who shall be troubled?”
Which suggests, in a somewhat passive aggressive way: if something good is going to happen to you—don’t feel too great about it, cause someone else is suffering. And: if something terrible happens to you, it’s terrible and it’s unfair.
The prayer also tells us that all this has been planned out in advance. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” But can we, mere mortals, know what will happen? Nope. No such luck.
No wonder this prayer is controversial. Especially if you’ve experienced inexplicable loss, as I have. Two and a half years ago, my wife—a beautiful person in every way—died of cancer at the age of 47. The day she died, our sister-in-law was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer. She died too, last month, at the age of 48. So to be told—or reminded—by this prayer that: “terrible things may soon happen” … “but there’s no way to know,” and … ”yes, it’s just not fair,” can be pretty infuriating.
But does the prayer offer any remedy for this pre-ordained, likely terrible, and unfair fate? Maybe.
Teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah—repentance, prayer, righteous acts—it tells us, may make some kind of difference. What kind of difference could that be?
The usual explanation—suggested by many translations—is that repentance, prayer, and righteous acts can somehow ward off or lessen the more severe punishments. “Temper the severity of the judgment.” If we say we’re sorry, beseech God, and promise we’ll never do it again, God may go easy on us.
But I also stumbled onto a different translation. Teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah, says this one, “deflect the evil of the decree.” Deflect the evil of the decree?
To me, that suggests a wholly different interpretation. This prayer’s punchline isn’t telling us just how to avoid some of the harsher possible outcomes. It’s suggesting a way to deal with what the prayer itself has decreed: the whole set-up of unfair, unknowable-but-foreordained outcomes—a set-up it even admits is evil.
In this view, what the Unetaneh Tokef tells us is this: terrible things may well happen to you, soon, and there’s no way to know what or when. But—if you can name and apologize for the ill you’ve done … if you can keep hope alive … and if you can do the right thing going forward, you may be able to live with this awful, unknowable, unfair state of affairs. You can deflect the evil of this decree.
And that seems about right to me.