Waiting for us to come home
New poem for Yom Kippur: We Are Jonah

Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"

UnetanehThis morning I was asked a question about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we pray on Rosh Hashanah. How do we make sense of "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed" when something truly awful happens? For instance: a teenager is killed, God forbid, in a horrific accident. How can we reconcile our horror at this kind of trauma with a sense of a loving God? What does it mean to assert that God "seals" such a fate for us? Let me say upfront that I don't have "the" answer. But here is an answer.

Earlier in that same prayer, we read "You open the Book of Memory. It reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." That line says to me that we're not talking about God as some kind of cosmic accountant, taking note of each action and selecting a corresponding fate. (This isn't Santa Claus, who "knows when we've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake!") The Book of Memory is something we each write for ourselves.

Every action I take inscribes itself in the Book of Memory. I inscribe and seal my signature in that book with every thing I do, and every thing I don't do; every kind word I speak, and every unkind thought I harbor. God doesn't write the Book of Memory for us: we write it ourselves, and at this season of the year, it "reads from itself" -- or, to use a more modern metaphor, at this season of the year, we sit down and watch the television show of our own lives.

Later in that same prayer, we read "But teshuvah (repentance or re/turn, turning toward God), tefilah (prayer / self-examination), and tzedakah (righteous giving) avert the harshness of the decree." The prayer doesn't make the claim that these three things can change what's going to happen; but they can ameliorate it. They can sweeten it. They can soften it. If, God forbid, someone I love is going to get sick and die this year -- no amount of teshuvah, tefilah, or tzedakah on my part or on theirs will change that reality. Our cells do what they do; our bodies do what they do; and sometimes we cannot be medically made well again. Or if, God forbid, a teenager on her bicycle is struck by a car -- no amount of repentance, prayer, or righteous giving can change that shattered reality for her or for her family who remain to mourn. But teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can change how we experience the reality which is. They can change our experience of the world. 

In between the two verses I've cited, there's the part I was asked about. How can we make sense of a God Who writes on Rosh Hashanah, and seals on Yom Kippur, who will live and who will die; who by fire and who by water; or in this day and age, as a colleague of mine dryly noted, who by peanut allergy and who by bee sting? I read this passage not as a literal description of who God is or what God actually does, but as a metaphor. What it says to me is: for centuries we have collectively needed to imagine a God Who is in charge, Who is holding the reins, Who is keeping watch over creation. A God Who takes note when someone dies by fire, and someone dies by flood. And not only how we die, but also how we live -- who will find rest, and who will wander; who will be driven, and who will be tranquil. Something in us needs to believe that God is paying attention.

This prayer's authorship is unknown, though we know that parts of it date back to the 8th century of the Common Era. (That's one thousand, three hundred years ago. This is a very old concept of God.) I suspect that its authors wrote it out of a fervent hope that God was, in fact, keeping track of who lives and who dies (and, beyond that: who dies in comfort, and who dies in trauma; who lives happily, and who lives in misery.) But after that paragraph, the prayer goes on to say that our teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah can temper the harshness of life's decrees. If it helps, we might think of the "decree" as something like karma, in which the aggregate of our actions and choices leads us to a particular future. Or maybe the "decree" is the laws of the universe: sometimes cancer cells can be conquered, and sometimes they can't. Sometimes a near-car-accident can be averted, and sometimes it can't.

And then the prayer goes on to say: "You [God] do not seek our death, rather that we turn from our ways and live." In other words: God isn't up there somewhere in the sky waiting for us to screw up so that He can strike us down! That kind of toxic theology exists in the world, but it's not a Jewish way of thinking about God. In the Jewish understanding, God is always yearning for us to make teshuvah, to turn and re-turn, to re-orient ourselves so that we are facing in the right direction again, to consider our lives and try to make better choices. No matter what we do, God always wants us back. I think there's something especially meaningful about hearing that as we begin the Ten Days of Teshuvah, the ten days of intensive repentance when we struggle to align our lives again with our highest ideals. No matter how we've missed the mark, God always yearns for us.

And then the prayer reminds us -- echoing the verses from psalm 90 which we read at funerals -- that "we are a broken urn, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a vanishing cloud, a blwing wind, settling dust, a fleeting dream." Even our lengthiest and sweetest lives are like withering grass compared with the vast scope of the cosmos. The prayer's final line contrasts God with that description of us: we are fleeting and our lives are short, but God endures forever. I suspect that the prayer's author(s) found comfort in the idea that even though our lives are brief, there is something beyond us which endures forever, throughout all space and time, throughout all the worlds. We are temporary; God is forever; and when we enter into relationship with God (whatever we understand that term to mean), we link ourselves with forever.

What is it that is written on Rosh Hashanah, and sealed on Yom Kippur? I don't believe that God writes down every action each of us will take in the new year, and then seals the book on Yom Kippur like a vault door swinging closed. I believe that on Rosh Hashanah we are called to take the time to sit with the truth of the lives which we ourselves have written. Who am I? Who have I been over the last year? Who do I think I will be in the year to come? We're also called to sit with the uncomfortable truth that we don't know what the year will hold. Who will live, and who will die, in 5774? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? Who will be joyful, and who will experience depression's cold fire? These are real questions, and though most of us ignore them most of the time (who can live in constant awareness of everything we don't know about our own futures and our own mortality?), during these ten days we're called to sit with what we can't know.

The purpose of this prayer, for me, is its emotional journey. It takes me from "I am writing the book of my own memories and my own life," to "I don't know what the coming year will hold, but every life contains death and suffering," to "I can sweeten my experience of these realities through teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah -- through trying to live in a mindful, thoughtful, just way." And then it takes me to its final stop: "my life is brief, but God is forever, and in my moments of greatest awareness, I can touch that forever-ness." At the moment of a birth -- or when I am awestruck by a sunset or a snowfall -- or when I sing to someone while they are dying -- I connect with God. I touch infinity, just for an instant.

I still experience sorrow. I am still mortal, and so are those I love. And terrible things still happen: they could happen to me, they could happen to my loved ones, they could happen to hundreds or thousands of people. But when I try to live with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah, I strengthen myself; I root myself; I make myself more able to face not only the times when life is bitter, but also the times when life is sweet.



Related reading:

Need a Reason to Repent? The Answer—No Matter Who You Are—Can Be Found Here, by Helen Plotkin, in Tablet magazine (2013)

Every day I write the book, from my own archives, posted here in 2005