"But repentance, prayer and charity can mitigate the severity of the decree." The puzzling signature on Un'taneh tokef is a theological challenge to us. For how many years have you looked at those words and wondered if you can bribe God out of punishment with an apology, some well-chosen words and a nice check! And apologists great and small, including (smallest of all) your own rabbi have attempted to explain the phrase as referring to a recipe for successful living in the future, not an eraser for the past.
Well, I understand those words differently this year. Two events in late summer have helped me to see that teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah are performed not by me to avert the severity of the decree against myself. When I perform those three acts, they help to mitigate the suffering of others.
Watching the evacuation of the Israeli communities in Gaza this summer was far more difficult than I expected. I have favored dismantling Israeli settlements for a long time, but took no satisfaction in watching the human toll of a principled action. On the contrary, I was struck with the genuine patriotism and almost noble suffering of those who acquiesced to a policy that they felt was against their values and interests.
I was startled at the familiarity of my emotions in watching the human toll of the natural calamities that befell the Gulf Coast in the weeks past. Though the cause of that suffering was entirely different than in Gaza, the reactions of the victims – genuine patriotism and a certain unexpected nobility – were striking.
To be sure there were exceptions – belligerent demonstrators, opportunistic looters, angry and outraged citizens. But on the whole, the people most directly impacted by both sudden shifts in their dependable lives bore their "punishment" with dignity.
The natural reactions that welled up inside me were exactly what Un'taneh tokef recommends. I deeply regretted what I witnessed. I prayed on behalf of the victims. And I reached out to help. In my own small ways, I hoped to mitigate the severity of the decrees that had been issued against the strangers on my television screen. Yet it seemed to take the extreme trauma, the loud noise and big wind, the rumble of transports and barking of loudspeakers to shake loose the three responses. People suffer every day, in ways less publicized, but no reporter in any medium confronts me with the tragedy.
Instead, our liturgy asks me to hear the still, small voice that is sounded – the one that whispers the right thing to do proactively and compassionately, not reactively and out of a sense of vicarious trauma. Repentance – turning away for the causes of suffering; prayer – advocating before heaven and earth for mercy; charity – sharing the abundance of personal resources with which we have been blessed: these indeed mitigate the severity of the decree.
Ann, Jennie, Julia and Max join me in wishing you a good inscription and positive outcome in the Book of Life.