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Unetanah Tokef with hyperlinks: Adapting a High Holiday prayer to today’s world

The fearsome possibilities meditated in the High Holidays prayer Unetanah Tokef strike an elegant balance between predetermination and free will. Here, a version annotated for our times.

A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on April 29, 2019. A gunman opened fire, killing one person, on April 27, 2019, as about 100 people were worshipping. The attack happened exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. (AP Photo/Greg Bull)

(RNS) — Shanah tovah — a good year. From the parking lot to the pews to the pulpit, we exchange this greeting during the High Holidays season. We wish one another good fortune because we have known bad fortune. We hope for light because we have seen darkness. We long for decency because we have witnessed indecency.

No liturgy says it better than the haunting Unetanah Tokef (“Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day”), the centerpiece of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. Taking stock of our days, this poem beckons us to ponder who shall thrive and who shall face adversity in the coming year. We grapple with this prayer in hopes of righting the wrongs not only in ourselves but also in the world around us.

The annual accounting of fearsome possibilities in the Unetanah Tokef strikes an elegant balance between predetermination and free will. Its opening line starkly announces that the reckoning period of the High Holidays, ordained from on high, is “awesome and full of dread.”

But the closing line — “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree” — boldly proclaims that we are not powerless. Taken together, these bookends offer a hopeful twist on destiny, suggesting that although we may not have ultimate dominion over our journeys, we do have some control.

In other words, fate is not a fait accompli.

Young climate activists march during a rally outside the White House in Washington on Sept. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As we recite the prayer this year, we mere mortals cannot divine how it will play out in the upcoming months. But with the benefit of hindsight, we know how the fates aligned in 5779, the year we leave behind. Without even opening the machzor, our High Holidays prayer book, we grasp the unholiness of the present political year-in-review.

For many of us, the words of the Unetanah Tokef echo in the depths of our souls, but for others who are not familiar with this prayer, I invite you to take a look at it before considering this version, annotated for our time. As this admittedly partial but surely representative inventory shows, the centuries-old text cries out for links, quite literally, to today’s blistering landscape:

On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be,

who shall live in clean air and who shall die from opioid addiction,

who insured shall see ripe age and who uninsured shall not,

who shall perish by contaminated water and who by fire stoked by climate change,

who by preventable gun violence and who by unsafely regulated livestock,

who by hunger when cut off from food stamps and who by thirst when desperate near the border,

who by earthquake weathered unprepared and who by measles plague fanned by anti-vaxxers,

who by domestic abuse strangling and who by homophobic stoning,

who shall rest secure in a free press and who shall wander in need of shelter,

who shall be tranquil when confronted with white nationalism and who shall be pursued by immigration authorities for deportation,

who shall be serene despite inadequate election security and who shall be tormented by bullies,

who shall be poor without a strong safety net and who shall be rich with disproportionate tax breaks,

who shall be brought low by #MeToo and who shall be exalted for racist outbursts.

How do we begin to respond to these meditations?

The Days of Awe present us with three keys to unlocking a better future: teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah — repentance, prayer and charity. If we are to reverse the reversals of the past year, this sacred season demands that we venture down all of these paths.

We can atone for our failures to speak out last year, pray for the strength to stand tall this year, and relentlessly champion civic causes engaged in tikkun olam, repair of our broken world.

A man holds a sign during a vigil for the Pittsburgh synagogue victims in West Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 29, 2018. RNS photo by Mark Silk

In an era replete with examples of the yetzer hara, the inclination to do evil, we must summon our yetzer hatov, our impulse to do good. Rather than condoning the construction of a wall, we must condemn the destruction of our values. Rather than voting for the privileged, we must protect the privilege of voting.

Rather than falling for the ruse of “Make America Great Again,” we must renounce this sweeping scheme to make America worse again and again and again.

At this pivotal moment in history, we each have a role to play in providence. For this is the challenging question underlying our holiday ledger in 5780: Who shall hold fast to repentance, prayer and charity, and who shall simply fast? Both our conscience and Jewish tradition dictate the answer. 

Jan Zauzmer is a writer in Pennsylvania. She is on Twitter @JanZauzmer