On Rosh Hashanah morning, 5775 (2014), I stood with the congregation to recite the U-ne-tane tokef prayer. The second paragraph begins On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die. In the translation used by my synagogue, it ends, But repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel the stern decree.
I did not feel anger start in my toes and work its way up through my body. This is how I have reacted for the past three decades since my daughter Ruth’s death. But something was different this year. I have spent hours considering the prayer in Hebrew, with the help of people far more versed in the language than I, and its translations in various prayer books. During the recitation of the first paragraph, I considered the words carefully in both languages. No anger. Instead, as the congregation began to sing together On Rosh Hashanah… I felt tears trickling down my cheek onto my silk dress. I was happy to let go of my long-held fury—invoked by the English words—at God, at the universe, at the drunk driver.
Who will live and who will die… Even as I chanted the litany of water, fire, sword, beast, and all the ways I might meet my end—though because the prayer is so ancient, it does not include cancer, my current struggle and likely nemesis—I thought about the ways I have chosen and can continue to choose life. And, finally, I reached the promise that repentance, prayer and righteousness empower us to pass through the severe effects of the decree.
That’s not the translation in the book I held in my hands. The English of the majority of High Holiday prayer books interprets the line similarly to the book my congregation uses: But repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel the stern decree. Perhaps another uses “avert,” “annul,” or “remove” instead of “cancel.” Maybe “evil,” “severe,” or “harsh” in place of “stern.” But they all seem to interpret the line the same way, as if the victim could have changed things if only he or she had prayed harder, been more repentant, more righteous.
Ruth, for example, had spent what turned out to be her final Sabbath evening praying and singing and “doing Jewish.” And yet, she fell victim to the “stern decree.” Did this mean that she hadn’t prayed hard enough? Did she not do enough for others? Did she fail to take stock of herself and try to change bad habits (at a mere thirteen years old)? How could her death be her fault? And yet, that’s what the prayer seems to say. It is written and sealed, who will live and who will die… who by earthquake and who by plague. Since Ruth’s death, I have understood plague as the curse of drunken driving. Ruth was one of some 25,000 people nationwide who died because of intoxicated drivers in 1981.
So let’s look at the words, starting at the end. What is this decree, hagzerah, that the prayer refers to? In rabbinic times, hagzerah referred to an official document from the ruling, non-Jewish powers that directed the Jews’ lives and from which they had no judicial recourse. Exile, expulsion, and forced conversion were instigated at various times and places by official decree. In our country today we are not, as a people, subject to decrees with no opportunity for justice. Consequently, I take the word metaphorically as a judgment that changes our lives negatively with no chance to appeal our destiny.
Ro-ah hagzerah is generally understood as the stern decree. But that’s not what the Hebrew says. That would be hagzerah haraah. Ro-ah hagzerah means the sternness of the decree. This fine point of grammar totally alters the meaning from the decree’s being harsh to the effects of the decree’s being harsh.
Not only was the decree—Ruth’s death—tragic, but the effects on her family, friends, and community were horrific. There was no way to change what had happened, there was no appeal, but perhaps, suggests this more accurate reading, there is a way to transform and live with the consequences.
But repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel the sternness of the decree.
Recently I discussed this prayer with an Israeli friend. She pointed out that the word that is translated cancel doesn’t mean that at all. There is a perfectly good Hebrew word with that meaning, and it isn’t used here. Ma-avirin , the word that appears, means to take across, enable to go through. It is a soft word without the hard, negative edges of cancel or avert. It seeks a way to walk through this awful thing. It is a positive word that suggests healing, that offers hope of passing through the worst.
As I read the preceding paragraph of this prayer on Rosh Hashanah morning, I saw that the word ma-avir appears. “As a shepherd inspects his flock making his sheep pass under (ma-avir) his rod, so do You cause to pass (ta-avir, 2nd person singular of the same root as ma-avir), count, number, and review the soul of every living being….” I simply don’t understand why so many translators understand ma-avir as “cause to pass” here and then alter the meaning to be “avert” or “cancel” a paragraph later. This change in translation induces guilt rather than encouraging healing for the hardships in one’s life.
With greater understanding, I see that the Hebrew suggests that repentance, prayer, and righteousness—actions that are within my power—can help me through the negative effects of the decree, the thing that happened over which I had no control. They no longer seem to indict me but offer a way to live with the impossible.
No one seems to argue with the meanings of the line’s opening phrase: U’teshuvah, u’tefilah u’tzedakah…And repentance and prayer and righteousness… However, I began to reflect on them, to expand their simple meanings in this context. Repentance seems to me to refer to our connection to ourselves. Prayer deals with our communication with God, how we relate to the force in the world that is bigger than we are, that is beyond our comprehension. Righteousness, from the root word for justice, tzedek, has to do with how we relate to others, to the people around us, to our nearby and worldwide communities. Together, these words cover all of our relationships. When we’ve been dealt a terrible blow, we need all these connections to overcome its severe consequences.
If my experience is typical, tzedakah, righteousness, is the easiest to do after a tragic decree. It was simple to write a check in memory of Ruth. I remember sending money to various disability causes because Ruth at thirteen had wanted to “teach handicapped kids when I grow up. Normal kids would be too boring.” With each check went a note describing my daughter and what had happened. The recipients may or may not have cared, but for me it was cathartic. It also seemed natural to get involved in Rochester Against Intoxicated Driving. Perhaps I could make a difference and save some other family the despair we were going through. Tzedakah suggests reaching out with money or with our own hands as volunteers to make life better for others because it is the just or right thing to do.
Next comes tefilah, prayer. I may have read the words outwardly, but inwardly I was screaming at God. Why did this happen? Why Ruth? Why me? Why? Why? Why? If God couldn’t handle my anger, that was God’s problem, not mine. Better to yell at God than at my husband or children.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century Jewish philosopher whose influence on my thinking has been profound, wrote after the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” With this in mind, I consider all my work to reduce drunk driving and to help victims and their families, as well as more recent volunteer activities, a form of prayer. As the prophet Isaiah said in a passage we read on Yom Kippur,
Is not this the fast that I have chosen
To loose the fetters of wickedness…
To let the oppressed go free…
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home…
In this understanding, tefilah overlaps with tzedakah. It is more than reciting prayers found in a book, more even than expressing what is in our hearts. Our prayerful actions can help us walk through the shadows.
Finally, teshuvah, generally understood as repentance, does not only mean deep compunction or contrition for wrongdoing. The root of the word is shuv, return. Teshuvah is returning. In the sense of penitence, it refers to returning to God. It means regretting our bad actions, determining not to repeat them, and returning to a state of at-one-ment with God (as my first rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta explained “atonement” to our class decades and decades ago).
But the thing that makes teshuvah so difficult after a negative life-changing decree is not returning to God, though that can be torturous. It’s returning to oneself. “Love your neighbor as yourself” suggests that we have to love ourselves before we can care for others. After Ruth’s death, I was too depressed to love myself, and I wasn’t accustomed to being sad all the time. How could the clerks at the dry cleaners or post office greet me as they always had when I was so changed? Didn’t I look as different as I felt? I had a new, all-consuming identity which seemed to me to be emblazoned in scarlet on my forehead: bereaved mother.
I didn’t like this unfamiliar, miserable me, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. When my depression finally lifted slightly, I questioned how I could spend the rest of my life with the person I had become. One Shabbat evening, several years after Ruth’s death, I lit my usual five candles, one for each member of my family. On this particular Friday night, I found myself asking God to help me return to myself. I prayed that God would restore me to the person I used to be, a person who was less self-centered and who reached out to others, a person who could think about something and someone besides Ruth. Although it didn’t happen overnight, I recall that moment as the beginning of my healing, of my returning to myself.
I think of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah in this passage as the means for restoring the balance with myself, with God, and with the community after a life-altering occurrence. These acts enabled me to walk through the worst effects of the decree until I came out on the other side. Some people talk about getting over it; there are some events that are so horrendous we never get over them. Ideally, we learn to live with them, aided and supported by repentance, prayer, and righteousness.
By returning to one’s true self, by communicating with the Divine through words and actions, and by reaching out to others with righteous deeds, we can cross to a place where we can write and seal ourselves into the Book of Life. We can’t change destiny, but we can move forward to choose life.