Ever wonder what we’re thinking about up there on the bimah during High Holiday services?
Hint: At any given moment, it’s probably not repentance, the majestic music, glorious liturgy, and themes of God’s sovereignty.
During services, we’re likely to be distracted with a multitude of various items, like who has the honor to open the ark (and if they’ll make it up to the bimah in time), if the huge crowd is starting to get a little noisy (including fussy babies and a few cell phones), if the custodial staff remembered to set the thermostat sufficiently low to accommodate the thousand or so bodies in the room, remembering which pages that I like to sing versus the points in the service when the Rabbi would like to pause to provide further explanation, and so many more details that are involved in the annual immense undertaking of High Holiday services.
So unlike at most other services during the year, I feel fortunate if I can manage to get myself into the “zone” and really connect with the words of the liturgy. But even with everything else going on, there’s one well-known text which never fails to speak to me. As I chant the words of Unetaneh Tokef, everything around me fades and I focus exclusively on the powerful, and yes, disturbing message of this prayer.
This text contains the familiar passage “Who shall live and who shall die,” and on the surface, gives us the iconic image of God (hopefully) inscribing our names in the Book of Life for the coming year.
But is that really what we believe? Is this the theology to which the Jewish people subscribe?
A literal reading of Unetaneh Tokef tells us that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who among us will live or die over the next year. It’s a done deal. Decided. Set. Pre-ordained. But that seems to directly contradict the very purpose of our sitting in shul over the High Holidays—if our survival over the next year is a fait accompli, what possible reason is there to pursue teshuvah, evaluate our behavior, and seek to make better choices? Even the ending line of the prayer tells us, “But teshuvah, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.” How exactly can that happen if our fate for the next year is not just written, but is in fact already sealed?
Clearly, we need to understand this provocative text differently. I view it as a statement of our own mortality. While I lead this prayer, I am able to stand at my podium on the bimah and look out upon the entire congregation. There are often many congregants that unfortunately passed away over the year, and are no longer present. And even more heartbreaking is to realize that there are friends and neighbors I see at that moment who will not be there next year. Our lives are fragile—it goes more deeply than “Who shall live and who shall die.” In fact, these words repeatedly drive home how vulnerable we really are. For instance, during the litany of unfortunate outcomes, when we read “who by fire and who by water,” how can we not immediately think of the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes and those who perished in flood waters?
We can’t do any better on the High Holidays than to recognize the precariousness of our lives, and pledge to treat others with thoughtfulness and caring. May the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to each other, and to fulfill the mandate of Tikkun Olam¸ fixing the world around us.