On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
You probably recognize these words. This prayer is recited when Jews all over the world congregate at local synagogues for the welcoming of a new Jewish year, or “Rosh Hashanah”. On Rosh Hashanah, we recite these words while believing that we are being judged and analyzed on account of our actions, whether positive or negative. When chanted in Hebrew, these words typically blend in with the rest of the service; it’s the English translation that is depicted among the other readings in the machzor.
If you think about it, the words are very direct. Basically, this prayer states that G-d has written our destiny and seals it on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. It continues by listing the many drastic ways in which our destinies can result. From fire to water, earthquake to plague, this list just exudes a negative, dramatic vibe that I personally do not understand. These harsh words really affected me this year while standing in my own sanctuary and lingered in my thoughts after I had left my synagogue. When I read these words on Rosh Hashanah, a scary image of G-d holding a huge book of life and analyzing the world appeared in my head, and that’s when all of my questions started forming.
Though not every word in any siddur is completely clear to me, doesn’t it seem odd that such a joyous holiday would include such threatening words? As a young Jewish teen with knowledge on these holidays and lots of blind faith, why do prayers in my own faith scare me?
Though the list of harsh life destinies created some discomfort that morning, it was the last sentence that bothered me the most:
“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”
From what I concluded in this prayer, the listed death and life options in the “Unetane Tokef” have all been possibilities for us and G-d chooses our fates, but if we act righteously, our predetermined futures can be altered for our benefits. From what I personally concluded, I am so bothered by this prayer all together, mainly because I doubt the message that this prayer is trying to send. I had always believed and supported the concept of unchangeable fatality; why do people’s righteous actions suddenly change the fate that G-d has planned for them? Moreover, why do only some people’s actions of kindness change their predetermined destinies, rather than everyone’s?
Though the events in our Jewish history, such as the birth of the state of Israel and the success of Rabbinic Judaism around the world, have certainly proven that prayer and acts of kindness thrive in our religion, what about the major suffering in the world? From the Holocaust to the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, the Jewish faith has a reason to question G-d’s power and our faith. Even today, there are so many stories about the miracles people have experienced as a result of their prayers and acts of kindness, but the same amount of tragic stories are told of those who have lost and continue to lose everything, even with their constant prayers and acts of kindness. Though, today, we can accept both the good and the bad from G-d, primarily to focus on the blessings in life, (Job 1:21) why should we believe that on every new Jewish year, we all have the opportunities to change our fates through acts of kindness if there are still tragedies every day?
As I remember the millions of Jewish lives lost throughout history, or the thousands of American victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I can’t help but wonder why their prayers and acts of kindness in life failed to change their miserable destinies, especially when a portion of the victims survived, when they might have prayed the same amount as the person who died.
While struggling with the literal words of the “Unetane Tokef,” I decided that as a faithful Jewish teenager, I still want to participate in all the prayers on the future days of judgment. After searching and reading various commentaries on this particular prayer, I came across an interpretive version of the “Unetane Tokef” that was written figuratively, rather than emphasizing the literal power of the words. Taken from a Reconstructionist machzor, I found comfort, rather than fear, in the revised prayer and intend on reciting the Reconstructionist words of the “Unetane Tokef” in the future.
The prayers and ideas in Judaism can be taken literally or figuratively. Though in this particular prayer, I dislike the literal terms of our possible destinies, I take comfort in knowing that there is a place and time for me to seek my own connection to G-d during the universal Day of Judgment.
As we enter what will hopefully be a healthy, happy, and successful 5771, I hope we can all find comfort in what we read and only enhance our spirituality in unity.
Unetane Tokef- Reconstructionist version:
When we really begin a new year it is decided,
And when we actually repent, it is determined.
Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist;
Who shall be happy, and who miserable;
Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition,
And whose hopes shall be quenched by the waters of failure;
Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy,
And who shall be torn by the wild beast of resentment;
Who shall hunger for companionship,
And who shall thirst for approval;
Who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity;
Who shall be strangled by insecurity,
And who shall be beaten into submission;
And who shall be content with their lot,
And who shall wander in search for satisfaction;
Who shall be serene,
And who shall be distraught;
Who shall be at ease,
And who shall be afflicted with anxiety;
Who shall be poor in their own eyes,
And who shall be rich with tranquility;
But teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah
Have the power to change the character of our lives.