Sunday, September 13, 2020

Unetane Tokef 5781


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Each year during the High Holy Days, Jews recite the classical prayer Unetane Tokef. It contains a litany of ways that people will die during the coming year, at the hands of the Heavenly Court. This is Theodicy at its finest. God is killing people for not doing their best. And many Jews reject this theology wholeheartedly, believing that God does not directly intervene in our lives in the modern era. Yet this prayer remains in our liturgy. It is certainly a reminder of horrors our people have experienced in the past millennia. And it concludes with a triplet that reminds us of how we can be saved:

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה

But Repentance and Prayer and Righteous Deeds can reduce the severity of the decree

We are told the secret: If we do these things, including Tzedakah, which is an obligatory, righteous form of donations, not “charity”, we can perhaps be saved. But if we do not believe in Theodicy, how do these acts come into play?  And what are our sins in the first place?

When we consider the litanies of the confessions that we recite in the liturgy, we always acknowledge that this is a formula that represents any possibility for ourselves, and for all of our community. We try to make expiation for everyone in the community, because nobody could have committed all those sins.

When we consider these ideas in the modern context, in the context of 2020, I think it takes on a much more haunting view however. This year has been an absolutely horrid year. If you look on the Jewish calendar, that was תש"פ, 5780.

And if we reject Theodicy, what then? What caused all of this?  I have written before, in my Midrash on the Sh’ma, that I firmly believe that human hands are at play for many of societal ills. This has never been more true. So when we consider the year we are closing, let’s consider a new litany for the Unetane Tokef. Rather than blaming God, let’s look inward. How have people been dying?

COVID-19                                     Police murders

Transphobic murders                      Wildland fires

Hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos, other weather events

Smoke and other air pollutants         Indifference

Government corruption                   Government inaction

Refusal to mask                             Refusal to social distance

Food insecurity                               Lack of housing

Lack of healthcare                          Lack of employment

Antisemitic murders                        Islamophobic murders

Anti-Asian attacks                           Endless wars in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere

Unresolved refugee crises in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas

Government caused Opiate crisis, exacerbated by street level Fentanyl

And the list goes on.

The list is too horrid to complete, and I am sure that every one of us, were we to sit down, would come up with a different list, because of differing priorities and concerns, that when collated, would amount to endless pages.  But we all get the idea.  Human failings and hubris are far more powerful than Theodicy EVER was at ending life.

But, we can reduce the severity of the decree.

With repentance, and prayer and righteous acts. Because if we turn away from all these selfish ways and become more selfLESS we can literally save lives. And lest people need reminding, we are OBLIGATED to save lives.

I bless all of us that 5781 should be a sweeter year, with less pain, more happiness and peace. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a Sweet, Happy New Year.

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