Hosea 14:2–10; Micah 7:18–20; Joel 2:15–27
The Shabbat during the High Holy Days is known as Shabbat Teshuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, and it calls on us to consider the power of being changed through teshuvah. Our minds often turn to the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, the centerpiece of the holiday liturgy. But the prayer’s strong language often troubles worshippers:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
On Yom Kippur it is sealed;
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be,
who shall live and who shall die,
who shall see ripe age and who shall not,
who shall perish by fire and who by water,
who by sword and who by beast.”
What do we do with such images of God? During these Days of Awe, is God really tallying lists of who’s going to make it to the next Rosh Hashanah and, worse, figuring out how the unlucky ones are going to die? These are the kinds of descriptions that pull people away from believing in God in the first place. The images are too harsh, too unforgiving, too primitive.
Yet I have always found the prayer to have a certain resonance. Of all the prayers in the High Holy Days prayerbook, this is the one I have always remembered and, at some level, always waited for. For me, this was the most dramatic moment of the holy days, and its message was powerful and welcome, and even inspiring.
Why? Because during my years at Cal, I took many English and French literature classes, and the message from so many existential writers, such as Beckett, Camus and Sartre, was that life is meaningless. There is no purpose to our existence, there is no meaning to our days, and all our actions are empty.
Something seemed wrong about that, although I couldn’t put it in religious terms at that point of my life. It wasn’t just that it seemed like a depressing conclusion. Surely our choices, our actions, I wanted to believe, have some deeper significance.
Perhaps because of my English major background, I have always read the prayer symbolically rather than literally. It is full of metaphors and literary images. It’s poetry, not an encyclopedic description of what God does during the High Holy Days. It’s not as if God spends this time of the year deciding whom to torment and then devising new ways to do it.
At the climactic moment of the U’netaneh Tokef, we read, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et-roah ha’g’zeirah” (“But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree”).
Do prayer, repentance and charity move God to treat us with kindness and ward off evil? I don’t believe so, and I couldn’t believe in a God or religion where that was so.
I don’t believe that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah change God’s mind, but rather that they will help us to transcend whatever it is that befalls us. Our lives will be centered in such a way that we’ll be better able to face the inevitable challenges of human existence. And by doing those things, we are creating the world God wants us to create. These are the tools our God has given us to live lives of meaning, to strive for the holy and to be God’s partners in perfecting the world.
That understanding comes from the Hebrew words themselves, which are much more nuanced than the translations. The critical word is “ma’avirin,” which usually is translated in the prayerbook as cancel, avert, annul or temper. The root word “avar” can have that meaning and connotation. More commonly, though, avar simply means to pass over, to cross over. And in the grammatical form of ma’avirin, it means to cause someone else to “pass over, go beyond, to transcend.”
Seen this way, the U’netaneh Tokef builds up to a compelling conclusion: that repentance, prayer and charity can help us get beyond the hardships that afflict the lives of every one of us, even the most righteous.
During this season of repentance, may we find fresh meaning and inspiration in the words of our machzor, and may we find our hearts and souls refreshed and transformed.
Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.