By Clifford S. Fishman
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
These words begin the third paragraph of the Unetaneh Tokef. That prayer continues:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born … Who shall live and who shall die … who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword, and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague;… who shall become poor and who shall wax rich; who shall be brought low, and who shall be exalted.
At the end, we chant in Hebrew: But repentance and prayer and acts of kindness can avert the decree.
Powerful moment, but…
It is an incredibly powerful moment, one of the high points in the High Holiday liturgy — even though it simply is not true. Each of us could point to many events that contradict it. If this prayer is literally true, then last Yom Kippur God decreed that more than a million people worldwide, and nearly 200,000 Americans, would die this year from COVID-19, and countless millions more would be impoverished or left homeless.
The Unetaneh Tokef cannot be true. Surely the rabbis who included it in the liturgy, and the people who over the centuries chanted this prayer, knew it cannot be true. So why is this prayer in our liturgy? Why is chanting this prayer such a highlight of our worship?
I cannot speak for the rabbis who composed this prayer and included it in the liturgy. I can only offer my own thoughts.
This passage belongs in the liturgy, I believe, and is so powerful and so moving, not in spite of the fact that we know the world does not work that way, but because we know, as our ancestors knew, that the world does not work that way. This prayer belongs in our liturgy, it seems to me, because it expresses our profound wish that good would always be rewarded and evil people would be punished, and that repentance, prayer and righteousness could guarantee us a year of life and health and achievement.
This prayer does more than express a wish. It issues a challenge: It challenges us to live as if repentance, prayer and righteousness could give us that guarantee. That challenge, ultimately, is its power.
Repentance, prayer and acts of kindness — these we can control. If we accept that challenge, then we will have helped in healing of the world.
May we all be sealed for a good year.
Clifford S. Fishman is a long-time member of Congregation Tikvat Israel in Rockville and is a professor emeritus of law at Catholic University of America.