One of the most famous prayers in the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur davening is the prayer of “Unesaneh Tokef.” The prayer describes exactly what God writes on Rosh Hashana, and what He seals on Yom Kippur. The words provide a menu of ways to die – from stoning to drowning, from plague to hunger – and a description of other negative events that may befall you. Your fate for the year is pretty much written in the books during these high holy days.
The final line of the prayer, though, reminds us that nothing is set in stone: Repentance, Prayer, and Charity can avert the evil decree. It’s a simple three-step-process to making sure we are written in the Book of Life, and that whatever decree was meant for us can be averted through our good deeds.
At least, I used to think that was what the prayer was about.
Maybe it was a bit of confirmation bias and the years of Yeshiva Day School that always taught me what the final line said. But this year, I actually read it carefully and noticed that the last line of the prayer does not say anything of the sort. Translated exactly, the final line reads: Repentance, Prayer, and Charity can avert the evil of the decree. We’re not averting the decree itself, just the evilness of it.
It’s a subtle difference that changes the entire meaning. Looking back into the text at the list of ways to die, the new reading seems to imply that there is no way to escape the decrees of death and destruction. But it isn’t as fatalistic as it sounds. The text doesn’t say “You might drown. You might die by plague.” It says that God decides “who” that will happen to, me and you being two of those possibilities. The poem is simply stating an obvious idea. Death, pain, suffering – these are things that we are all going to experience this year. We can’t escape it. If it is not us, it will be someone we know. Something we will witness.
The last line then, the one about repentance, prayer and charity, is not a line giving us a recipe to make it all go away. Bad things will always exist in this world. Instead, it’s giving us tools for how to cope with the evil that we may experience. It’s telling us that to get rid of the evil of the decree, we need to do three things: look inward to ourselves, look up to God, and give back to our community. By looking inward, I can examine what this experience has done to me, what I can get out of it. How I can change from it. By looking up to God, I have someone to rail at, to duel with, to question. And by giving to my community, I can turn my experience into a positive. I can create a legacy. I can turn tragedy into positive action.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are days that focus on those relationships. It’s a communal meditation on ourselves, God, and our friends. What the poet is telling us in this universal prayer is that we are not going to escape trauma and pain. We can’t stop that from happening. But those experiences do not have to destroy us, our relationships, and our connections.
I have seen that happen to people I love who have experienced tragedy and pain. I have also been on the other side, the receiver of evil decrees, and I know the struggle to make sense of hardships when there is no answer for suffering.
It isn’t easy.
The prayer for the new year is not a message of false hope, of a year without pain, but rather a guide for that weariness, a reminder of the tired expression that while pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice. These inescapable painful decrees can lose their destructive evil nature, and instead become catalysts for change and growth, if we heed the words of the poet: look inward, reach upward, branch outward.