An article by Rabbi Jeff Hoffman “Do Repentance, Prayer and Charity Cancel or Mitigate the Decree?” inspired me to rethink one of the most famous prayers on the High Holidays: The U’Netaneh Tokef, “Let us Ascribe Power.”
The poem is recited as part of the Chazan’s on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur and has become famous because of its dramatic lines:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed –
Who will live and who will die;
Who (will die) at the end of his days
and who (before) the end of his days:
Who by fire and who by water;
Who by sword and who by beast;
Who by hunger and who by thirst;
Who by earthquake and who by plague
Who by strangling and who by stoning…
But repentance, prayer and charity [can] cancel the harsh decree.
The U’Netaneh Tokef is not really a prayer; it is a poetic meditation on the unexpected disasters that occasionally can befall us; and because they are rare and unexpected, shock and even terrify us.
But how many people actually die in a fire or by drowning? How many die by earthquake, plague, strangling or stoning?
The U’Netaneh Tokef poetic meditation on unexpected deadly disasters, is really about the great amount of anxiety caused by very dramatic powerful events which remind us that sometimes we have very little control over our lives.
As Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh once said: “What a good and bright world this is if we do not lose our hearts, but what a dark world, if we do!”
Thus the closing line of The U’Netaneh Tokef poetic meditation on unexpected deadly disasters is the answer to anxiety: “But repentance, prayer and charity [can] cancel the harsh decree.”
These three activities that we should engage in every day, cannot cancel unexpected deadly disasters, but they can eventually reduce and hopefully squash our anxieties, fears and worries.
This might be why the Koren Machzor (2011), translated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says: “But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree.”i.e. the evil and not the decreed itself.
Rabbi Hoffman offers some translations that take this point even further by translating the term מעבירין not as “cancel” but as transform. For example, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Tov translates “…have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” Similarly, Reuven Kimelman, in his article on U’netaneh Tokef, suggests, “let the harshness/hardship of the decree pass.”
The hardships of life sometimes can lead to despair and depression and these feelings need to be combatted as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to make yourself fearful.”
One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about future bad possibilities or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur and worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it only takes away today’s peace of mind.
As Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We should worry about being (always) worried.”
Rabbi Hoffman asks why does our prayer use the term מעבירין, “cause to pass away,” as opposed to two more unambiguous terms in the rabbinic sources, namely מקרעין , “tear up” or מבטלין , “cancel”? The answer, he thinks is that the root ע-ב-ר meaning “to pass” or “to cause to pass away” is a literary Leitmotif that recurs over and over again for poetic effect in our prayer, and so the poet used it here as well.
I agree with this, but I think the poet uses the term מעבירין, “cause to pass away,” intentionally over and over again to stress that unexpected disasters always do eventually (fade) pass away, especially if you do good deeds. Anxious atheists and unbelievers die a hundred deaths; while faith-filled believers die only once.
As the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber asserted more than a half century ago that, “the purpose of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later negative) experience can dampen and stifle.”