In a different year, I might have spoken about the need for us to turn, to change, and to support one another in the process of change in our personal lives, in self-care and health, in our relationships, and in our communities. But this year, after all we have been through, this holiday season is a time to reflect, not on our weaknesses, but on how well we have done. We have done something amazing.
In March of 2020, with almost no notice, we changed our lives and expectations. Our homes became schools and synagogues, workplaces and, for many of us for many months, the limits of our world. That summer we drove past each other’s homes to wave hello and met one another on back porches. Despite all the losses, and with no roadmap, we stayed connected. We learned new skills. At B’nai Tikvah, people care for one another. We have not been without a minyan since the COVID lockdown began. As a community, we will be OK.
In May and June of this year, we allowed ourselves to hope that we had turned a corner. After months of pessimism about holding in-person services this fall, it looked like we were going to make it happen. And then we pivoted again and with the Delta variant we masked up again. We are facing an uncertain winter. If teshuvah is returning, we are living a life of turning and turning again. I now see teshuvah as a kind of spiritual flexibility, the kind of openness to accommodation that enables us to persevere, adapt, love, and grow in a complex world of interlocking crises.
One guide to this meaning of teshuvah is the prayer Unitaneh Tokef that comes at the center of our Musaf service. In this prayer, beloved for its music and appreciated for the power of the refrain, “Who shall live and who shall die,” we tell God that we know that God is the judge, the prosecutor, and the witness to our lives, and we say that we are trembling because we know that today is Judgment Day. This is the prayer that in our parents’ or grandparents’ mahzorim often had tear stains on the pages.
Most of us know the words that come next: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…How many shall die and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who shall live to be old and who shall not; who shall perish by wildfires out West and who by floods on the East Coast; who protesting in Kabul, and who by pandemic.”
The section of the Unitaneh Tokef prayer that represents the mystery of human destiny as a catalogue of possible futures, for good and for ill, and of course everything in between—this part of the prayer is simply true. We know that some people will die this coming year; some in old age, and some young; some of illness and others in accidents; some in war, and some in the floods and fires of human-made and natural disasters. Of all the prayers made more meaningful during this time of global pandemic, none speaks to our reality more deeply.
Even though we know these facts, until this pandemic, most of us go through life, more or less, not thinking about them. We make plans. I used to pride myself on knowing my travel plans at least a year in advance. Now my date book goes silent beyond the short term. The glib Yiddish proverb, “People plan and God chuckles” (man tracht und Gott lacht), seems grimly true.
Let me share another proverb: Have faith AND tie your camel to a post. We must continue, of course, to be vigilant in tying our camels to the post, to do our part, actively, to keep ourselves and our communities safe. But what is the content of our faith once we have tied the camels to their posts?
This year, still concerned about COVID, once again wearing masks in our building and in stores, I was feeling the vulnerability of the world, of America and of Israel, of people I care about, of congregants who are alone or in failing health. Seeing the world through this lens, Unitaneh Tokef demands acceptance: Face it, the prayer calls to us: you are vulnerable. Irrespective of the pandemic, we are likely to live better and behave better if we stay mindful of our shared vulnerability. In a list of five principles for the new year, my friend and colleague Rabbi Simcha Raphael wrote as No. 1: Accept reality as it is. And then, once we do so, Unitaneh Tokef suggests a strategy for coping with this most difficult aspect of our shared humanity. I want to offer this strategy to you as we prepare, once again, to hunker down.
The chorus of the prayer is, “Teshuvah, Tifillah u’Tzedakah, ma’avirin et roah hagezayrah.” “Being resilient, learning to pray, and living generously lessen the severity of the decree.” And in this chorus, I understood that we are not praying to be spared an ending in death. The goal is not security, but an effective strategy to deal with insecurity.
The playwright and feminist Eve Ensler wrote a book called “Insecure at Last.” She points out that our obsession with self-protection actually makes us less safe. She writes: “Security is essentially elusive, impossible. We all die. We all get sick. We all get old. People leave us. People surprise us. People change us. Nothing is secure. And that is the good news. But only if you are not seeking security as the point of your life.”
The earliest versions of the refrain of Unitaneh Tokef were actually expressions of wishful thinking. The Palestinian Talmud asserts that prayer, charity, and repentance cancel a harsh decree. The early rabbis imagined that our good behavior can actually change the future, reverse the course of illness or forestall death. By the time this idea finds its way into our prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Judaism had rejected that concept. The author of Unitaneh Tokef deliberately changed the language. Nothing prevents death or the lesser forms of loss that occur during our lifetimes. All that is in our power is to ease the experience of fate through the kind of life we decide to live.
So, let us look briefly at the three suggestions made in the prayer. We can avoid the harshness of what life throws at us through teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah.
The path of teshuvah is a path of modesty. We must imagine pulling ourselves out of the psychological places where we are stuck and meeting someone else where they have moved. Teshuvah requires stretching. Dancers, yoga teachers, and psychologists all affirm the importance of flexibility—physical, emotional, and spiritual flexibility—for graceful, happy, living.
My wife, Lori, and I have been married for nearly 45 years. Like everyone, we have faced conflict and resolution and renewal; we have dealt with birth and death, and career changes. Over the years, we moved a lot, refashioning ourselves with more, and sometimes less, success.
Like most people, we have strived for different kinds of security, but we have been happiest when we managed to live into new circumstances. I affirm that that part was not always easy, but teshuvah, the opposite of standing still, is about adjusting.
As we enter the new year, we might aspire to small victories. Allow yourself to depend on support networks and trusted people who can help you. I often hear from people that old friends want to take them out to lunch or shop for them, but they hesitate to accept gifts. We are sometimes shy or worry about our inability to reciprocate. Say yes. Life’s joys can be small. If you are able, discipline yourself to take a daily walk. Examine the night sky. Vary your pleasures because too much time in front of screens may add to feelings of isolation or sleeplessness. Let’s consider turning off our devises on Shabbat. A few years ago, someone created a cell phone sleeping bag for Shabbat. Make your own. The turnings of teshuvah include taking care of ourselves in whatever ways are best for you.
The second of the strategies for mitigating the harshness of life’s decrees suggested by Unitaneh Tokef is tefilah, learning how to pray. When I have asked people this past year about what brings them back to the synagogue, without question the first response is community, the feeling of shared purpose and the ability to check in with friends.
People also pointed to the comfort of the familiarity of the prayers and the pleasures of song, including the joy of learning new melodies. In pre-COVID times, staying for kiddush loomed large as a motivation to come to synagogue. Rarely do people speak of feeling an obligation to pray or feeling that their experience of personal prayer was transformative. But tefilah—dedicated attention to expressing our hopes and giving language to our gratitude—also mitigates the severity of fate.
During the presidential inauguration, when President Biden and Vice President Harris took an evening to remember and pray for those who died during COVID, I saw the power of pausing to pray. With the lit torches and the words of memory, I was struck by how much that ritual was necessary for us to feel our shared humanity, surrender, and be reflective. After a year-and-a-half of the global COVID pandemic, we have lost millions worldwide, and close to 650,000 in America, including members of our congregation and family and friends of our community. The president’s decision not to elide or glide past those deaths was meaningful, but not inevitable.
The biblical book of Numbers, Bamidbar, describes the children of Israel in a wilderness of transition. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites travel through a barren wilderness, insecure about water, about food, and about the future. The book is framed by a census taken as they left Egypt and a second census taken as they prepare to enter the land of Israel. One startling fact about the second census is that no one mentioned in the first census is still alive. An entire generation died in the wilderness transition, and mourning that loss is unrecorded. The standard rationale is that the generation of slaves was not psychologically prepared to enter the land. That explanation now seems unreasonably cold to me. It misses the challenge of confronting loss. It fosters denial.
We need to pray for those who died on behalf of their souls, which may simply mean honoring each life in its uniqueness; we need to pray to remind one another of our vulnerable teachers and health care workers; we need to pray to appreciate the sacrifice of those households where parents worked from home this past year while attending to children schooled remotely and missing the activities and socialization that normally accompanies the school years. Prayers of memory, prayers that encourage us to help others, and prayers that remind us to appreciate the sacrifices of others put us in a frame of mind to be our most generous, compassionate selves. Prayer is different from concrete action, but prayer can inspire action by giving us focus, perspective, and comfort.
What about when our prayers are not fulfilled? I would suggest that an unfulfilled prayer is not necessarily an unanswered prayer. As every parent knows, “no” is also an answer; sometimes “no” is the right answer. Prayer averts the severity of the decree because prayer helps us frame our needs, find our supports, and broaden the context in which we understand what we want. Prayer forces acceptance. In the face of mortality, expressing desire and appreciation, hoping for “yes” and accepting “no,” prayer encourages behaviors that can support our moving forward.
Finally, tzedakah, living generously, can avert the severity of the decree. In the book of Proverbs we are told that, “Wealth will not help a person on the Day of Judgment, but charity saves from death.” We do not literally believe that charity spares us death. As long ago as the early Middle Ages, the rabbis acknowledged that very charitable people do die young, and so this line was revised to read that charity saves one from a terrible death. But we also know that pious people can die terribly. We all know people who died this past year alone and in discomfort. A Bratslaver hassidic tradition deals with that reality by further revising the biblical quote to read that “charity saves one from despair”—despair, a death that can afflict us even in life.
A charitable gift encourages the recipient, who feels less alone and unprotected in the world, but our tradition actually focuses on the benefit of charity to the donor. Supporting others and the institutions that support others provides the donor with a sense of hopefulness, possibility, and power. Supporting others helps our sense of safety because we can reasonably hope that we are part of a web of charitable relationships. Bessel Van Der Kold wrote in “The Body Keeps the Score,” “Resilience is the product of agency, knowing that what you do can make a difference.” At B’nai Tikvah, we guide one another in finding projects, some local, some national, and some impacting Israel and our world, where our contributions of time and resources can make a difference and keep us from despairing. As individuals working together, we can make a difference.
Teshuvah, tefillah u’tzedakah: flexibility, learning to pray, living generously. Unitaneh Tokef is a roadmap. As we enter a new year dealing with many of the crises that we have been living with and some new and developing ones, we need our synagogue community to support us. The wisdom of these holy days includes introspection, flexibility, and humility; thoughtfully articulating our needs, and helping others as we support ourselves. These are our best defenses, providing us with the foundation for more peaceful lives. Whatever our prayers on the High Holidays, we cannot reasonably expect a year free from death, loss, challenge, or fear. Our prayers and our presence together, even virtually, remind us of our resources to face what will come. Our synagogue community ensures that we do not face the future alone.
To everyone, shanah tovah umitukah. May we all be safe, protected, and well during the year ahead, and may we all continue to care for one another with a generous heart so we can fulfill the words of our prayers.
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