For many years, I have been fascinated by the words of U-netaneh Tokef (“Let us declare the power [of this day’s holiness]”, one of the most haunting, compelling and in some ways troubling passages of the High Holy Day liturgy.
In the summer of 1981, near the beginning of my rabbinic and academic career, I published an article that was triggered by an experience leading a Rosh Hashanah worship service the previous year. Looking out at the congregation, I saw in one of the first few rows an 11-year old girl, whose 39-year old mother was dying of metastasized breast cancer. As this girl was reading with the rest of us the climactic proclamation, u-teshuvah u-teilah u-tseakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezerah, translated in my Mahzor as “penitence, prayer and charity avert the stern decree,” I remember thinking, What conclusion will she draw when her mother dies, as indeed she did a week later? That her mother’s prayer (or her own) was not sincere enough, that she was not good enough, to avert the decree? Is that what the sentence meant?
Investigation led to new insights. I found that the midrashic source of our statement is “Three things annul the decree (mevatlin et ha-gezerah): they are penitence, prayer, and charity.” The changes introduced into the liturgical poem are highly significant: ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezerah (literally, “cause the evil of the decree to pass”) is fundamentally different from mevatlin et ha-gezerah (“annul the decree”). My conclusion was that the affirmation is not that “it is within man’s power to annul an evil decree,” as a leading commentary on the High Holy Day liturgy explains it; it is, rather, a statement about human response to the arbitrary misfortunes and catastrophes that occur all around us.
This year, I have been especially struck by the universalistic character of this liturgical passage. It is clearly not about the judgment and fate just of Jews, as we frequently assume. Despite the reference to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as critical moments in the calendar, the people described in the text are not identified as distinctively Jewish. To the contrary, universalistic formulations recur as a leitmotif. In the introductory section, we read: “all who enter the world will pass before You”, “You record, recount and review every human being, You decide the end of every creature”, “the signature of every human being” appears in the metaphorical books recording our behaviour.
Coming to the litany of possible fates recounted in the middle of the prayer—“Who shall live, and who shall die,… who by water and who by fire,… who will become rich and who become poor”—our recent memories of economic upheavals, of hurricanes and tsunamis, of terrorist attacks and raging fires, all affecting the lives of good and bad alike, make it clear that with regard to such matters all human beings, and not just Jews, confront imponderable forces often beyond our control.
Toward the close, we find yet another universalistic passage of stunning power, a collection of striking biblical similes for the precarious nature of human life and the ultimate futility of our endeavours and aspirations: “Human beings come from dust and their end is dust.” We are “like shattered pottery, like withered grass, like a faded blossom, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud,… like blowing wind, scattered dust, like a dream that will fly away.” This is not about the judgment of the Jew, or about the destiny of the Jewish people, but about the human condition, what we share with every human being on earth.
And the climactic assertion about the power of penitence, prayer and charity, not to change the external reality of a cancer or a flood, but to enable us to transcend the potential evil consequences of what occurs: these three principles are also central components of the religious traditions of our non-Jewish neighbours.
Unlike in Israel, when we go to synagogue this weekend and the following Monday, the rest of our society will continue to function more or less as normal, an awareness that may indeed fortify our sense of being different from the majority. But rather than focus exclusively on our distinctive identity as Jews on these Days of Awe, our liturgy impels us to remember as well those elements that unite us with our neighbours in facing the ultimate challenges of living together in our society, on our planet.
On behalf of the entire Leo Baeck College community, may I wish you all a healthy, fulfilling, sweet and good New Year.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.