On Rosh Hashanah it is
written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Who shall live and who shall die....
For many people, this prayer is one of the most powerful childhood memories of the services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The words describe God, seated on a throne, surrounded by angels, looking at a Book of Remembrances. In it is a record of each of our lives in the past year, written in our own handwriting.
As children, many of us heard this and wondered: Am I going to live or die in the next year? Are my grandparents going to live? Or, more heartbreaking: Is God the reason my grandma died last year?
But I don't mean to say that these are childish questions. I've lost count of the number of people who ask me: Rabbi, is this how God operates? Is this what happens -- God decides during one week who will live and die, and then that's what plays out in the coming year? Do we believe that's the explanation for the tragedies of the world, all the murder and terror and war?
The first part of my answer is: No. I don't believe that God is the one who pulls every string, who determines which of us will live another moment or another year.
But my response goes on. For me, prayer is sometimes like art. Art is a way of highlighting or spotlighting something about our lives. Art magnifies and intensifies -- and sometimes art exaggerates, and experiments. Art does these things with our beliefs and our perceptions and our worries. Art evokes in our minds and emotions a world of as-if. What if the world were really like this? How would that affect me and change me?
Piyyut -- poetic prayer -- is just like that.
The prayer of God on a throne of judgment begins: Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom. It means something like, "We acknowledge the power of the holiness of this day." Power! The words of the prayer work on us with emotional power. But the prayer asks us: What if we treated this day as having actual power?
Unetaneh Tokef puts us, uncomfortably, face to face with mortality. The last year may have been a year when someone close to you died, or a year with pain in your life or your family. But even if not, we all know that life is uncertain. No one can know who will live and who will die, who will have health and who will suffer.
The prayer asks us: What if your life really depended on your actions and your decisions? What if everything is being weighed, and the decision is being made today? What would you have to do?
The prayer itself answers: Righting the wrongs we have done. Centering ourselves on God's truths and teachings. Giving and justice. U'teshuvah u'tefillah u'tzedakah. These things change our lives and our destinies.
Even if I don't have many days remaining to live.
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer could bring us to feel that these days have true power. It's not just a service to dress up for, and sit through for great lengths of time. Surrounded by so many people, taking time from work and school, we can face together the questions of life and death that we would rather turn away from.
The prayer beckons us to wake up, and to tremble. We rarely do that, until life forces us to. But the prayer also invites us to imagine ourselves in a reality where our decisions and our directions affect life and death, happiness and suffering, for me and for others. In that reality, power is truly in our hands.
This is the intensity and the exaggeration that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us. While the reality of the Unetaneh Tokef may not describe the world, the prayer helps us our own lives as we ourselves have written them. It acknowledges our fears and our hopes, and challenges us: What next?
May our whole community have a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet New Year.