Pray as if the whole world depends on it

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for whose well-being in the coming year do we pray—(a) each of us for ourselves, (b) for ourselves and for all Jews everywhere, (c) for all people everywhere and not just Jews, or (d) for all creatures within whom there is the breath of life?

The answer is “d.” We pray for all creatures within whom there is the breath of life. In other words, we pray for ourselves and for all of God’s creatures great and small, human and non-human. As the British theologian and scholar Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen notes, this is confirmed by one of the most significant prayers in the High Holy Days liturgy—the U’netaneh Tokef K’dushat Hayom (We attest to the holiness of the day), when it says that “all who have come into the world pass before” God, to be judged “as would a flock of sheep.”

God judges all His creatures at this time, not to sentence them to death, but to give them a chance to live. As Ezekiel quotes God as saying, “Do I want an evil one to die…; what I want is for him to return and live…[b]ecause he took note of his wrongdoings that he has done and returned from them.” (See Ezekiel 18:23-24; better yet, read the entire chapter; it is most instructive.) Because that is what God intends by judging all His creatures, we must pray for them as well as ourselves, because we are commanded to emulate God, to “walk in His ways” (see Deuteronomy 28:9). As the Thirteen Attributes we recite over and again during our prayers, especially during the High Holy Days, tell us, God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”

For those who would interpret this narrowly—that these attributes extend to Israel only—Judaism rejects that view. God cares for everyone, and all that He does is for the benefit of everyone. “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works.” (See Psalms 145:8-9.)

Keep in mind, too, Jonah’s complaint to God, which we read about on Yom Kippur during the afternoon service. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to announce the city’s imminent doom because of its evil ways—an assignment he did everything he could to avoid fulfilling, because he feared what would happen if they actually listened to him.

Jonah’s fear was well founded. God, seeing that the people of Nineveh “were turning back from their evil ways…renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them and did not carry it out. This displeased Jonah so much that he preferred to die. “Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” (See Jonah 3:10-4:3.)

God’s response: “Should I not care about that great city, Nineveh, in which more than a 120,000 people reside who cannot tell the difference between their right hand and their left, and for the many beasts there, as well?” (See Jonah 4:11.)

So if God cares for the people of Nineveh (and everywhere else) and even “the many beasts,” so must we all care for them.

Bluntly stated, then, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, all of those identifiers we humans adopt to keep us apart from each other—religion, race, skin color, nationality, language, gender, politics, and so forth—are declared nonsense, artificial constructs that have no basis in the reality of God’s world. “God created ha-adam [the human] in His image…; male and female He created them.” (See Genesis 1:27.)

As for the so-called “lower life forms,” Genesis 2:7 and 19 tell us: “The Lord God formed ha-adam from the dust of the earth [ha-adamah]…. And the Lord God formed from ha-adamah all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky.” In other words, all creatures with a breath of life in them—human, animal, avian—all came “from out of the earth,” all were made from the same material.

In the words of the biblical commentator, grammarian, and philosopher Joseph ben Abba Mari Ibn Caspi, all creatures—in the sea, in the air, on the ground, from the smallest to the largest—are “k’ilu avoteinu,” meaning “they are like our ancestors.” (See his comment to Deuteronomy 22:6-7.)

So, yes, we do pray on the High Holy Days for the well-being of every creature within whom there is the breath of life. Praying for them, however, is not enough. We have to spend the rest of the year actually working to improve life for every creature—human, animal, or avian—which also means we have to spend the rest of the year improving the natural world in which we all live.

We call the period from the start of Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur “The Ten Days of Repentance” and “The Days of Awe.” As the U’netaneh Tokef puts it, this is a time of “fear and trembling.”

Such descriptions distort the reality of these days. To be sure, as we also read in U’netaneh Tokef, “on Rosh Hashanah, it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…. Who shall live and who shall die,” and so forth. That is very scary stuff—unless we understand what these words actually say. Consider how this “who shall” litany ends: “But through repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness, we can avoid the severe decree.”

In other words, these verses are not about the terrible things that will happen to us. They are about the things that will not happen to us because we know the formula for avoiding them: through t’shuvah—evaluating our behavior and consciously deciding to change the flaws we find in our character; through t’fillah—if we pray for the strength we will need to do the work required to change; and through tz’dakah—through actually doing that work, thereby testifying to the sincerity of our repentance.

That is not something to tear out our hair over; it is something to dance in the streets about.

All the moaning, and the groaning, and the crying, and the breast-beating, tomorrow, Sunday, a week from Sunday night through the end of the next day are so unnecessary, because we know the secret formula.

So few people see anything joyous here, though. We are so conditioned to see this period through a much darker lens that we lose the true sense of these days. There is a genuine lack of understanding about these next 10 days, what they really are, what they really mean, and how we really should relate to them.

Calling these days from tonight through Yom Kippur the Ten Days of Repentance is a bit weird, in any case, because in 5781 there are “353 days of t’shuvah,” not 10 (on our calendar, 5781 has 353 days). Referring to this period as “the Ten Days of Repentance” suggests that these are the only days when repentance is achievable. They may be the most propitious days, as our sages taught, but they are not the only days. T’shuvah can be achieved at any time of the day or night on any day of the year. All that is required is a sincere desire to change for the better and then doing what it takes to make that change happen.

These 10 days are not about obtaining instant absolution for our sins. They are for taking stock of our lives and making a plan to improve ourselves. Only after they end do the true “days of repentance” begin, and absolution comes only after we have truly changed our ways.

These days should not be seen as days of great sadness, but of great joy. Fear and trembling are not required for repentance; only sincerity is needed—and that sincerity is measured by what we do and how well we do it during the year ahead to change the flaws in our character that we identified during the High Holy Days. Fear and trembling are meaningless emotions; only our actions count. Besides, fear and trembling violate the spirit of the period, especially on Rosh Hashanah. Rather, we should heed the advice of Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites, who told the people on “the first day of the seventh month” how it really should be celebrated:

“This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep…. Go your way, eat fat foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength….”

May we all pray for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our people, for all people, and for all creatures with a breath of life, that 5781 is the year we all come to realize that the world will only become a better place if we all work together to make it so, and then may we act in every way we can to make it so.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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