Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who by fire and who by water

The prayer which, more than any other, evokes the tenor—and terror—of these High Holy Days is the medieval poem known as U’netaneh Tokef. Traditionally attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, it proclaims the awesome power of this season, in which God, as Judge and Arbiter, opens the book of our days and decrees our destinies: “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by strangling and who by stoning. . . who shall be secure, and who shall be driven. . .” The language moves us by its ferocity; this is our tradition’s version of fire and brimstone.

And then comes the kicker: “U-teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma-avirin et ro-ah ha-g’zerah—But repentance, prayer and charity temper the severity of the decree.”

What does this mean? Surely Rabbi Amnon, a pious sage who died a martyr, knew that none of these things change the reality of the decree one iota. We will all suffer, and we will all die, no matter how much we repent, pray, and give tzedakah. Indeed, some who do these things in abundance will suffer greatly and die young, while others who are unrepentant, misanthropic, and wouldn’t set foot in a synagogue may nonetheless live long lives in relative comfort.

But as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, while the choices that we make cannot change the decree of death and suffering, they can lessen their sting. As he puts it, “Repentance, prayer and donating do not change the facts of life – our disbursement of blessings and curses will continue to bear little relation to our moral virtue, whether or not we pray, repent, or donate. But a heart habitually opened by repentance, prayer, and donating will cross through life’s inescapable misfortunes somewhat more gently. Our road will still be bumpy, but we’ll have better shock absorbers.”

These Days of Awe remind us how fragile we are, how much of life will always be out of our control. Yet even in the worst of circumstances, we retain the power to choose how we react to our lot. May this season help us to better respond to adversity with reflection, spiritual strength, and giving hearts.

For a powerful contemporary Israeli musical setting of this classic piece, see

Questions to consider:
1. This fall, we will examine this prayer in more detail during our Yom Kippur study session. For now, reflect on the relationship between our circumstances and the choices that we make.
2. What do you make of the metaphor of God as Judge and Arbiter? Does this fit with your ideas/experiences of the Divine? What message might it impart in this season?
3. After noting that God opens the book of our days and decrees our fate, the text also says that this book “bears the signature of every human being.”
Given that this is a signature, we, not God, are doing the writing. What does this imply?

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