During these Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we take stock of our lives. We examine the past and pledge to make our future better. Our sages teach that the world hangs in the balance and that one good deed will tip the scales towards good. That is why we are particularly attuned to doing acts of repentance, prayer and tzedakah during these ten days.
These three pillars of Jewish living are enlarged in the powerful, haunting and disturbing poem called U’netaneh Tokef. After reading the long litany of ways that God may not write some of us into the Book of Life, we come to the refrain, “But repentance, prayer and charity may temper the severity of the decree.”
This notion of God choosing at this season, “who shall live and who shall die” is troubling. So much so that when we get to this section of the machzor, many of us recoil or simply tune out.
The new machzor, Mishkan Ha’nefesh, provides different interpretations and readings for U’netaneh Tokef. In some cases, these alternatives make it easier to receive the words of this central part of our worship.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Joseph Meszler, took his difficulty with the traditional English translations of U’netaneh Tokef, and wrote a version that I believe will resonate with more of us. He focuses attention on the often time unfairness of life that is out of our control and he focuses attention on us and or actions, rather than the decisions that God makes for us.
As we continue to journey through these Days of Awe, recognizing that much still hangs in the balance, and also that there is much good we can do good in our lives to make our world healthier and stronger, I hope that these words provide some comfort, strength and insight as we journey together.
An Alternative U’netaneh Tokef
By Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is teshuva, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is tefilah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.