I look at all the Jewish educators out there writing on the upcoming holidays and all the rabbis working on High Holiday sermons and wonder how they come up with something new!! These holidays have been around forever and it seems like everything that could have been said has been. I am not being humble but real — I know I can’t do better than all those “famous” teachers out there but I can share something that is new for me or has helped me in a new way. We begin anew each day ready to learn or else what is life all about? Remember as the days, months, years pass, we each are in a different place so the lessons come often at a time when we are ready for them. My advice is to be open and ready!
So, I read something new about a prayer that has always bothered me — the Unetaneh Tokef. You know that one that says that at this time of the year there is this big book of life that we hope we will have our names in for another year — if we are worthy. The idea is that God has the book opened on Rosh Hashanah and it will close on Yom Kippur and after that, it is what it is! Then the prayer goes on to list all the ways we might meet our end: who by fire and who by water, who by plague and who by famine, who by sword and who by wild beast, etcetera. I have read many newer interpretations or what each of these “methods” mean in today’s world, but the bottom line is that it will happen! However, there is a line that offers hope: “But repentance, prayer, and deeds of charity can annul the severity of the decree.”
How do we come to terms with this prayer? A recent article by Cantor Matt Axelrod on the Unetaneh Tokef shares that he is moved to tears when singing “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” He then goes on to share these thoughts:
“At that moment, I realize that not all of us will be here next year. These people — congregants, friends, family — it is a sad but inescapable fact that some will die over the course of the coming year. Our lives are a gift. We perform teshuvah not to appease a distant and invisible deity, but rather to remind us of our value to one another and strengthen our relationships with each other. We give tzedakah to better the lives of those around us. And we engage in prayer to further develop the bonds of our connection to Judaism and our community.
“Our job is not to temporarily put on our best behavior in order to convince God to let us live for another year. Instead, we acknowledge that our time here on earth is limited and our lives tenuous. The true and vital message of Unetaneh Tokef requires us to ask ourselves not who shall live, but how shall we live?”
This message is powerful and uplifting and, most important, gives us direction not only how to “save” ourselves but to truly make a difference in the world. This summer at camp we sang Elana Arian’s song “My Voice Can Change the World.” Together with our children of all ages at camp, we embraced this idea that we can all do our part to change the world. That is the message for the High Holidays, for the year and forever.