September 29th: Yom Kippur
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
One of the curious things about our traditional prayers is that, though they can be very challenging, there is nonetheless a persistent urge to keep on praying them. One of the most challenging prayers in the High Holy Day liturgy is Un’taneh Tokef:
Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day: it is awesome and full of dread. For on this day, Your dominion is exalted, Your throne is established in steadfast love; there in truth You reign. In truth You are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal, You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being. This is the Day of Judgment! Even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You. As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny.
Setting the bounds of every creature’s life?! God really does this? Is our fate for next February or May being decided right now?! Then the prayer gets positively graphic:
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; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted.
But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.
This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.
There is something terribly disturbing about this prayer, and, yet, it also seems to speak a kind of ancestral truth. It is a prayer that is frequently discussed at study groups on Yom Kippur: it bothers some and seems necessary to others.
Here is a piece written for our Machzor that considers the logic of the prayer and the Jewish sensibility in praying it every year:
As much as we are masters of our own fates—making decisions and living with the consequences, there are also times when greater powers toss us around like small boats on a stormy sea. Whether the “storm” is caused deliberately by God—as a punishment or a test—or by the vagaries of the natural world, we find ourselves victims or objects of the slings and arrows of fortune. Are events pre-determined, or do we have free will? This ominous prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, has for some 1500 years represented our people’s grappling with this question. We know that many of our decisions make a difference, but we also know that greater powers impact our lives in significant ways. We pray that the greatest of powers eases our way and makes our challenges manageable, and we pray that the decisions we make will be good ones.