Rosh Hashana is, of course, a time of new beginnings for all of us–with all of the introspection and opportunities to change our lives that it brings.And yet, for a lot of us, one of our tradition’s toughest pieces of liturgy shows up during the morning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. The Une Tane Tokef prayer asks, “Who shall live, and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before?” and answers, “but teshuva (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedekah (acts of righteousness) can avert the severity of the decree.”Can individual acts of piety save us from poverty, tragedy, or persecution? We know that a lot of very good people suffer every day, and that many people who do horrible things prosper. For many of us, the surface meaning of this prayer feels…counterintuitive.
And yet – maybe that’s not what’s going on.
I wonder if, instead, we might regard the Une Tane Tokef as a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, like much of Jewish liturgy. Not I. We. What if our repentance as a society – which demands that each of us do our part – is the thing that affects our collective fate?
All of our actions are tied inextricably with the actions of our community, with all Jews, with all people. It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental, and social well-being; our work together can impact the severity with which evil besets us all.
We need teshuvah – which literally means “returning” – to see where we need to be in relationship to others, to ourselves, and to the transcendent. Tefillah (prayer) and other reflective practices can help us remember that we are on this Earth to serve, not to please ourselves. Tzedekah (acts of righteousness) enable us to enact, in part, this service in the world.
The deeper we get into prayer, returning, and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is – rather than being isolated and individual – intertwined with the wellbeing of our society as a whole. The more we try to bring our actions in alignment with our greatest ideals, the more we find that every aspect of our lives is inextricably impacted. We can each harness our passions and our resources powerfully; there are a lot of ways to invest in the wellbeing of our local community, our country and the world.
Our work for justice can help inscribe us all into the Book of Life. The work begins with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah. Where it ends, how far it extends, is up to us.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is Avodah’s Rabbi-in-Residence.