Sealed for Life or Death? Kol Nidre 2020 – Marc Saperstein

Many passages of our liturgy, and especially the High Holy Day liturgy, derive their power from the integral connection between music and words. Indeed in some cases, the melody seems far more important than the words. Kol Nidre is an obvious example.

This evening I would like to focus on the Unetaneh Tokef, for many generations a showcase for ḥazzanim. We heard it first during the musaf amidah for Rosh Hashanah, and we will hear it again tomorrow. Unlike the words of Kol Nidre—a dry, repetitious legalistic formula—the words of Unetaneh Tokef are among the most beautiful and powerful passages in our entire Jewish liturgy. What I would like to explore with you is what lies beneath the melody and the words, indeed the theological assertions that they express. I confess that, although I always feel moved to hear and sing or recite them, they raise for me some serious problems.

Let’s begin with the introductory section about the awesome majesty of this day: ‘On Rosh Hashanah it is written down, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed . . . Mi yiḥyeh u-mi yamut . . . Who will live and who will die, who shall see ripe age and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water, . . . who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague . . . , and so forth.”

Many of the great rabbis in the Middle Ages. They quoted biblical verses and rabbinic statements and invoked the empirical experience of all Jews to insist that there are many wicked people who survive from one year to the next, and many fine, good, decent people who die prematurely and sometimes without any warning and for no apparent reason or purpose. Many pre-modern Jews also found it difficult to defend the principle that God is responsible for every such event.

One late 15th-century Spanish Rabbi, Isaac Arama, maintained that the judgment on the High Holy Days does not apply to death due to natural causes, but only to special kinds of death that are clearly punishment for the sins of the individual. This seems to me an extremely important distinction, because it leaves natural causality intact free of divine manipulative intervention. It means that even the most saintly person who carelessly steps out into the street before an oncoming bus will not be miraculously saved because of his merit. It means that a good, decent person who becomes deeply depressed—and we all know that such things happens—and decides to end his or her own life by jumping off the top of a tall building will not be miraculously saved because the suicidal decision was irrational. It means that a cruel, malicious person may indeed live out the coming year not because he was sealed in the book of life by some heavenly court, but perhaps because he eats a healthy diet, exercises regularly, and pays for the best possible medical care.

The language in this opening part of Unetaneh Tokef suggesting a heavenly court, in which God – who serves as Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness – reviews each individual – not just every Jew but every single human being – and decrees the destiny of each person for the coming year: this is powerful poetry that indeed should make us stop and think about our lives, our behaviour. But it is metaphor, it is not to be taken literally to conclude that every death in every possible manner is the result of a divine decision dependent upon what we deserve.

A second passage. At the end of this litany in the first part of Unetaneh Tokef come the climactic words: uteshuvah, u-tefilah u-tsedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha gezerah. The first three words are easily translated: penitence or repentance, prayer, and charity. But the full assertion is not so simple. Max Arzt, in a classic commentary on the High Holy Day liturgy published two generations ago, wrote that this statement “assures us that it is within man’s power to annul an evil decree.” This is the good news; it suggests an escape clause, a way out: even if a decision for death has been made and sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not irrevocable. It can be overturned, cancelled, nullified by repentance, prayer and charity.

But while that assertion is reassuring, I find it also deeply problematic. Think of a parent with young children who dies in the hospital of coronavirus. Did the words we have just read mean that it was within the power of the child or her mother or father, to arrest the virus through penitence, prayer, or charity. Would the parent’s untimely death after an agonising struggle prove that the parent and the children, had not engaged sufficiently in penitence, prayer and charity; that they were therefore deficient, and in a way at fault? Is that what this liturgy means?

Disturbed by this possibility, I began to look into the matter more deeply; I discovered that this statement is based on one in the rabbinic literature that begins in the same way, uteshuvah, u-tefilah u-tsedakah and continues mevatlim et ha-gezerah, penitence, prayer, and charity annul the decree. The author of Unetaneh Tokef changed the statement in two details. He changed mevatlim, ‘annul’, to ma’avirin, literally, ‘cause to pass’. And he changed the direct object, ‘decree’ to ro’a ha-gezerah’, the evil of the decree.’ I believe that these small changes make for a very different kind of affirmation—the difference between a magical conception of religion and a rational conception, the answer not to “Why bad things happen to good people,’ but how we should respond “when bad things happen to good people.”

Death, sickness, impoverishment, tragic as they may be, are not the same as evil. They do bear the potential for truly evil consequences. They can poison, embitter, fill us with self-pity, undermine and destroy a marriage, blind us to the needs of others, turn us away from God. But the evil consequences of even the most appalling decree are not inevitable. If penitence, prayer and charity do not have the power to change the external reality, if they cannot stop and reverse the malignant cancer or coronavirus, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become enduring, that the ‘evil of the decree’ will pass. Penitence, prayer and charity can enable us to transcend the evil consequences of the decree. This is a message that I believe reflects that actual meaning of the words, a message that I could share with others today.

The third passage from Unetaneh Tokef is also striking in its literary power:

Man’s origin is dust, and dust is his end.
Each of us is like a shattered urn,
Like grass that must wither, like a flower that will fade,
Like a passing shadow, like a vanishing cloud,
Like wind blowing on, like dust aloft,
Like a dream soon forgotten –
But You are King, the living and everlasting God.

Each one of these phrases is taken from a different biblical verse, all woven together to express in the most poignant manner a message about perspective and humility regarding the ultimate limits and insignificance of human life in comparison with the eternal living God.

A similar theme is expressed in the familiar passage that we will read in the Ne’ilah service tomorrow night; it is familiar to many of us because we read it, usually in Hebrew, every Shabbat morning near the beginning of our worship. This is the translation: ‘What are we, what is our life, what our piety, what our righteousness, what our helpfulness? . . . Are not all the mighty men as nothing before You, the men of renown as though they had not been, the wise as if without knowledge, and the men of understanding as if without discernment? Most of our works are meaningless; the days of our lives are vanity before You; the pre-eminence of man over the beast is as nothing, for it is all vanity.

Now I believe that humility is indeed a virtue, but isn’t this taking it too far? You are so great, God, that nothing human beings have achieved is of any value to you? The music of Bach and of Beethoven, the Psalms of David and the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of Keats, the sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Rembrandt, the discovery of penicillin, the marvels of modern surgery . . . all of this is tohu, emptiness? and hevel, vanity?

And what about more ordinary people like us: the good deeds we do without calling attention and sometimes without getting much credit for them:  reaching out to someone in need, mentoring a child, responding to an appeal for charity, helping to build a congregation and a community. Is this all emptiness and vanity? Do we really believe this? If we can plead no merit and all we can do is throw ourselves on the mercy of the court, what is the point of trying? Don’t we need to balance the assertions of human ineptitude and insignificance with different metaphors: asserting, with Psalm 8, that God has made human beings “little lower than the angels”, asserting that we are partners with God in tikkun olam, making the world a better place, asserting that God may depend on us to get things done right, that God has no hands on earth except for our hands, the hands of human beings?

Let us therefore be aware that behind the haunting melodies and the beautiful language of Unetaneh Tokef if we take the words seriously there are some critical theological issues:

  1. Do we believe that by the end of the day tomorrow, God will indeed have sealed our destiny for the coming year, and that whatever happens to us is the result of an all-powerful divine decision? Or are there things that happen to us because of natural causes, and because of chance?
  2. Do we believe that penitence, prayer and charity can actually nullify the negative aspects of our destiny, including the progression of a cancer or coronavirus? Or can these three principles change the way we respond to what happens, though not necessarily what happens itself?
  3. Do we believe that human life is ultimately like a shattered urn, a passing shadow? Or do we indeed have the capacity, even the responsibility, of carrying on work that God wants us to do, so that the sum total of our lives may be of enduring significance?

I look forward to discussing these issues further with some of you at the shi’ur tomorrow afternoon. Let us ponder these questions in the hours ahead, culminating in Ne’ilah tomorrow; perhaps we will be able to make some important decisions, and act accordingly.