The Avodah Blog

What This Rosh Hashanah Poem Means in Today’s America

Who will live and who will die?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by wildfire, and who by hurricane?

…Who by the repeal of their health care, and who by the unjust pricing of their lifesaving medicines? 

The questions that we ask on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not theoretical. The High Holy Day liturgical poem “Unetane Tokef” is one of our toughest pieces of liturgy. The answer that it gives to these essential existential questions is, “teshuvah — repentance; tefillah — prayer, and tzedakah — acts of righteousness can avert the severity of the decree.”

Can individual acts of piety save us from earthquakes, car accidents, persecution? Will God give you a cookie if you do your homework? We know that a lot of very good people suffer every day and that many people who do horrible things prosper. It’s clearer than ever these days.

We’re trained by our highly individualistic American culture to regard this prayer as an individual exhortation to shift our individual fates. And yet — maybe that’s not what’s going on.

Rather, perhaps “Unetane Tokef” is a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it’s written in the first person, it’s in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.

What if this wasn’t about my own personal repentance as it affects my own specific fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate Each of our culpability, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad is tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all Jews, with all people.

It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental and social well-being — and to not pass the theological buck to a deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will.

Free will: the power to heal or to hurt, to push for climate accords or to push for corporate interests, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them — or to stand idly by and do nothing.

What if the reason that a person develops cancer is not that he or she personally did something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence?

What if the reason a person was hit harder by the hurricane is because that person’s city invested more infrastructure in neighborhoods wealthier than their own? What if the reason that they don’t survive their illness is because senators took away their health care — because we, in a fit of resistance fatigue, stopped calling? Didn’t make it out to yet another town hall?

Our work can impact the severity with which evil besets us all.

We need teshuvah — literally, “returning” — to face the reality of who we are, to see how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship to others, to ourselves and to the transcendent. We need tefillah, prayer, to remember that we are on this earth to serve, not to please ourselves, and to connect to the ever-flowing source of the Holy.

We need tzedakah, acts of righteousness, to enact, in part, this service in the world.

The deeper we get into prayer, returning and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is — rather than being isolated and individual — intertwined with the well-being of our culture as a whole.

*A version of this article was originally published in The Forward on September 18, 2017.

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