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Unetanah Tokef - In the Wake of the Decree


On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… Who shall live and who shall die… Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented… but teshuvah, repentance; tefilah, prayer; and tzedakah, acts of righteous compassion, will annul et ro’ah ha-gezera, the severity of the decree.

What is the meaning of these few lines, some of the most familiar in the High Holy Day liturgy, specifically three questions that emerge from them:

  1. What do we make of this notion of God's decree?

  2. How is it possible for human actions-repentance, prayer, and tzedakah-to influence divine actions?

  3. Precisely what do we imagine will change for us if we perform these actions?

In other words, I'd like to explore with you the ideas of fate and free will, and how they interact, especially in the imagery evoked in the prayer I cited above.

First, a traditional Chinese parable:

Long ago in a remote village in China, there lived a man whose only possession was his horse. One day the horse ran away. “Ah, terrible fortune!” lamented the poor man. But a few days later, his horse returned, with a beautiful wild mare by its side. “Ah,” said the man. “Good fortune!” But when the man's only son tried to break in the new horse, it threw him, and he broke his leg. “Ah,” said the man. “Terrible fortune!” Shortly after this, a military recruiter came through the village, drafting every able-bodied man into the emperor's army. Since the man's son had a broken leg, he was not considered fit to serve. “Ah,” said the man. “Great fortune!”

Or to quote a great sage from the same tradition, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha: “Fortune changes like the swish of a horse's tail.”

So, here we are: another year has passed. Some of us have experienced good fortune, perhaps even great fortune during the past year; others of us have experienced bad, perhaps even terrible fortune. Our homes, our communities, our nation, our world have been diminished by the loss of precious lives; and they have also been enriched by the addition of new ones. Our people-fellow Americans, fellow Jews, Israelis, Westerners, fellow human beings-are still at war, fighting old battles and starting new ones. Humanity still remains vulnerable to plague, famine, sword, and natural disaster-in the year that has just passed: a tsunami and devastating hurricanes. The voices of the biblical prophets, of Lamentations and Ecclesiastes, of Job still reverberate in our ears with the ring of incontrovertible truth. So, how do we cope with this unending cycle of loss and sorrow?

Do we take refuge in denial, clinging to the illusion that everything will turn out all right, that it's all for the best? But we know that's not the case. We know that young people will die before their time; that some of the righteous will suffer, some of the wicked, prosper; that villains will get away with murder; that life keeps turning out to be-as our children persist in reminding us “not fair.” So do we then become cynics, agreeing with Kohelet that “vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” What can one person do to change the world? What can one person do to change her own fate? For, as Kohelet reminds us: “The race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant; nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by those with understanding, nor favor by the learned-but time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes. 9:11). Isn't this a formula for depression? Or for callousness? Or for hedonism? Why should we bother to care about anything if everything and everyone are destined for the grave?

Wise and spiritually gifted people have been pondering these same questions for millennia-and have suggested a variety of answers. And yet here we are again, still asking those questions, still finding previous answers inadequate. Here we are again at another new year, the time for returning to basics, for acknowledging ultimate realities'-Who shall live, and who shall die; who shall live out a full lifetime and who shall die too soon, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented'; here we are again at a time for new beginnings, for turning to a fresh page in the Book of Life. Have we become no wiser after another year of living? Are we back to square one? Is the world, are our own lives still as bewildering as they were last Rosh Hashanah? Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over just as the seasons repeat themselves with each revolution around the sun?

Perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong questions as we have struggled to make sense of these theological challenges. Maybe the question is not “Why is there suffering in the world?” but rather, “In the light of such suffering, what am I called upon to do?” Not “How can I stand this grief that afflicts me?” but rather “In the light of such grief, what good remains?” Not “Why do I have to lose so much?” but rather “In the light of such loss, what blessings can I celebrate?”

What if we simply acknowledged that human life is defined by loss, that the moment of our birth is the beginning of our dying, that life moves inexorably in the direction of entropy, disintegration, disorder? What if we did not take our own experience and knowledge as the measure of the world or the measure of God? What if instead we accepted that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy? What if we understood that our assignment in life is not to demand meaning of God but to “find” and “make” meaning in God's world?

Rabbi Akiva, one of the great sages of our tradition, taught in Pirke Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers that “Everything is pre-ordained, yet free will is given” (Pirke Avot 3:15). What exactly does that mean? How can we have choices to make if everything's already been decided for us? What exactly did Akiva mean in this apparently paradoxical statement? What did he mean by everything? Did he really mean everything?

An ancient midrash:

“When a baby is conceived, Laylah, the Angel of Night, brings the fertilized egg before God who decides its fate: whether it will be a boy or a girl, rich or poor, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, fat or thin, wise or foolish. Only one decision does God leave in the hands of the unborn soul: whether it will be righteous or wicked. Between morning and night on that same day, another angel reveals to the unborn soul its future life: where it will live and where it will die and where it will be buried. And then at the end of nine months, the angel announces to the soul that it is time to be born, but the soul protests. The angel silences it: 'So God has decreed. Against your will you were formed, and against your will you will be born. And against your will you will one day die. Such is your fate.' Just before the baby is born, the angel taps it right under its nose, leaving a small cleft there. Then the angel extinguishes the light shining above the baby's head and it forgets everything it has learned during the previous nine months. And then the baby emerges into the world, crying and afraid. Each soul spends the rest of its time on earth recovering what it once knew.” (Ellen Frankel, The Classic Tales, 17-18).

In this midrash, we find Akiva's “everything” and also a suggestion of what he meant by “free will.” The midrash tells us that everything is pre-ordained for the unborn soul except whether it will be righteous or wicked. This is solely the province of human choice. Similarly, the talmudic sage, Rabbi Hanina, taught: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Berakhot 33b). Is this the same “everything” and its exception as Rabbi Akiba and the midrash refer to in their texts? What exactly is meant by yirat shamayim, the fear of heaven? In Hebrew the wordier refer to the kind of fear we feel before taking a difficult exam or performing a dangerous task or when we face a mugger or a bully. It's also not the fear of pain or even of death. No, yirah, usually translated as “awe,” refers to how we feel in the presence of something indisputably greater than ourselves-like the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way, a chess grandmaster, the birthing of new life. It is a blend of reverence, dread, and wonder. And if we experience such yirah the presence of natural wonders, how much more so when we face the One who created them? However, such awe in the presence of divine power, divine justice, divine compassion is only meaningful if it happens through an act of our free will -- for if it were pre-ordained, it would be similar to the submissiveness shown by slaves or captives, who have no choice but to quake before their masters. When we willingly demonstrate our fear of heaven -- by acting righteously, by performing acts of repentance, prayer, and tzedakah, for example -- we truly honor God. In so doing, we temper the severity of the divine decree, whatever it turns out to be for us. By acknowledging our limits, we paradoxically enlarge our freedom.

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented… but teshuvah, repentance; tefilah, prayer; and tzedakah, acts of righteous compassion, will annul et ro'ah ha-gezera, the severity of the decree.”

In adopting a posture of yirah, of reverence, we are inspired to live an ethical life. This is one way to imbue our lives with meaning, to soften our experience of God's inescapable decree. Another way is to adopt a posture of gratitude, to view everything we have as a gift, rather than as an entitlement. To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel. We then recognize that “everything we own, we owe.” As in the case of yirah, our decision to be grateful is solely in our hands, not God's. Although it will not change our fate, it very well might soften the heartaches.

A hasidic story: Elimelekh and Zusya were brothers. Elimelekh lived in luxury, Zusya in poverty. You might ask why Elimelekh allowed his brother to live in poverty. Whenever Elimelekh shared his wealth with Zusya, Zusya would find someone poorer than he was, and Zusya would be poor again. It was the nature of Elimelekh to be wealthy, the nature of Zusya to be poor. One day students came to ask him about the commandment to love God. It says, “You shall love the Adonai your God with all your heart.” They told him they knew how to love God when things were going well. How were you supposed to love God when things were going badly? Reb Elimelekh said, “You will learn this lesson better from my brother than you would learn it from me.” It was a cold day, so they knew they would find Reb Zusya sleeping behind the stove in the synagogue to stay warm. They waited for him to wake, then asked him how you love God when you”re having a bad day. Zusya looked up at them from his rags and said he didn't know. He had never had a bad day. (from Mitch Chefitz', The Seventh Telling: The Kabbalah of Moeshe Katan p. 157) Zusya teaches us that our own acts of kindness can help us as much as they can help those we consider less fortunate. They can make us feel wealthy, feel generous, feel lucky. Reb Zusya saw himself as standing at least one rung above misfortune. And he was so busy reaching down to those on the rungs below him that he never had time to look up to see how many rungs stretched above him. Were the conditions of his life improved because he felt this way? Were the conditions of those less fortunate improved?

Probably not. Was there more that he could have done? And was there more that his rich brother Elimelekh could have done? Probably. But the point here is not to focus on what wasn't happening but on what was. Zusya's attitude gave him the strength and optimism and will to keep offering whatever comfort he could to others, and perhaps by his example to inspire others to do the same. Who's to say that Zusya was not contributing in a significant way to the redemption of the world?

So, as we enter these Days of Awe, of yirah, these yamim nora'im, we can either choose to focus on the gezera, the fate that God has decreed for us, in the coming year: Who shall live and who shall die, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted? -- or we can focus on how we experience the severity of that decree. We can focus on our losses -- the deaths of those we love, the aging of our bodies, our disappointments and regrets, our resentment about other people's good fortune and our own bad luck -- or we can daily embrace the reality of our lives at the same time that we do what we can to redeem the world. We can begin on this day, the birthday of the World, by returning to the right path, by orienting ourselves spiritually so that we can connect more closely with God, our community, and the best part of ourselves; and by sharing what we have with others. No matter what we do, we cannot annul the decree.

As the mahzor (the High Holy Day prayer book) reminds us: “Our origin is dust and our end is dust. We spend our life earning bread. We are like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream.” We live our lives in the shadow of death. But we need not regard that shadow as a curse; we can also regard it as shelter from the scorching sun. As the poet Wallace Stevens teaches us: “Death is the mother of beauty.” It is our knowing that our time on earth is finite, that we all will die that makes life that much more precious. Or in the immortal words of the inimitable British wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” As we sit together during this period of prayer and reflection, wondering whether in the coming year we will be hanged -- figuratively if not literally, we have an opportunity to concentrate our minds wonderfully -- to decide whether we will be at peace or will be tormented.

During the year ahead, as we confront the many choices and changes that life will inevitably bring, we can ask ourselves: Can I annul the severity of the decree, or is this turn in my life solely in the hands of heaven? We ask God, the One who delights in life, to inscribe us in the Book of Life, and to remember us for life.

Shana tova tikateyvu. May you be written for a good year.

Type: Dvar Torah

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