Do Repentance, Prayer, and Tzedakah Really Avert the Evil Decree?

“Repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the evil decree.” I’ve struggled for years with this powerful piece of prayer from the u’netaneh tokef that we recite on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. The musical compositions written for it match and amplify the power of the words. But the urgent chant of this prayer, especially as it reaches a climax in this phrase, creates a private emotional clash of inspiration and anguish.

Here is my fresh attempt at understanding this prayer, courtesy of the insights that I have relearned from the painful experiences of COVID-19:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who by timely death and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire… who by earthquake and who by plague… who will rest and who will wander, who shall find calm and who will be tormented…But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the evil decree.

Those who believe in prayer literally can believe that God won’t bring these evils upon us if we repent, pray, and act more righteously in the new year. If we experience these calamities despite our efforts, we performed these actions defectively or insufficiently. If that’s your theology, you can stop reading here. But if it isn’t, and you want to keep reciting these words without feeling like you’ve been false to your personal beliefs by being faithful to the liturgy, what are your options?

1) Remove the sting. Some translators soften these words with alternatives like, “mitigate the severity of the decree” or “remove the evil of the decree.” These translations are honest attempts to preserve the concepts of God’s judgment of us and our ability to influence it through heightened religious and ethical practice. Even if we reject the literal idea of a God who personally judges our actions, we can still accept the inherent value in exerting more effort in acts of “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah.”

How does this effort work for you?

2) Rule out or revise. Our honesty and integrity are at stake when we open our hearts in prayer. When our ancestors’ words no longer have meaning for us, we can and must substitute, reinterpret, or discard them. For example, we can read the statement “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah avert the evil decree” as an empowering challenge to own our destiny. We need not pray for a supernatural force to transform the world as we have the means to repair ourselves, our relationships with others, and the ethical condition of the world now.

This approach is personally unsatisfying as it detaches me from memory-filled words.

3) Read the text in context. A form of the Hebrew word from this phrase, מַעֲבִירִין, appears five other times in the u’netaneh tokef. Its root meaning is “to pass,” and that definition neatly fits these five other instances. What happens when we incorporate the literal meaning into our theologically troubling passage? It now reads, “Repentance, prayer, and tzedakah help us pass through life’s calamities (an accurate and better-suited translation of the Hebrew for “evil”).

This translation is theologically true for me. I knew this truth already, but COVID-19 retaught it to me with unprecedented force. The pain of separation from frail parents, helplessly watching loved ones who contracted the virus or who are emotionally distressed from social isolation, of reading about friends still in rehabilitation from COVID-19, of avoiding reading about the toxic political pandemic, of seeing raging fires and angry oceans… My wife and I were in tears on Rosh ha-Shanah as we prayed these words because they felt cruel. Would more sincere repentance, fervent prayer, and generous tzedakah alter these ugly realities? But cruelty gave way to comfort as we listened to the meaning emerge from the context.

I know God does not personally punish me with calamities and that everyone experiences measures of misery. But I can navigate them better by allowing these experiences to teach me where I need to grow (repentance), trusting in God that I do not experience them alone (prayer), and pursuing purpose by supporting another person who is in pain (tzedakah). When I find the strength to listen to the liturgy this way, these acts help me pass through dreadful periods and emerge less demoralized. And sometimes, as the years, I become positively transformed in unimaginable ways. I’m more than okay opening my lips in this kind of prayer that respects my theological honesty and enables me to reclaim the wise tradition that I’ve inherited.

Thank you for reading this post. I hope that it helps you search for meaning when it’s in short supply. May you be inscribed and sealed in the book of life and good health in 5781.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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