Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Saying Goodbye

Rabbi Shira Stutman
There is a rotary phone in a phone booth in Japan that’s not connected to anything.

Mieke Meek on the NPR show This American Life tells the story--

“The booth was purchased by Itaru Sasaki and placed in his garden, in the town of Otsuchi, which suffered from a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. “Otsuchi had been there for 100 years. In 30 minutes, it was gone-- almost totally flattened.The tsunami and the earthquake that went with it killed...over 19,000 people. Another 2,500 are still missing. And in the aftermath, of course, families struggled to figure out how they were going to move forward without the people they loved.”

The phone booth is “an old English-style one. It's square and painted white, and has glass window panes. Inside is a black rotary phone, resting on a wood shelf. This phone, connected to nowhere, didn't work at all.
“But that didn't matter to Itaru. He just needed a place where he felt like he could talk to his cousin [who had died in the tsunami], a place where he could air out his grief. And so putting an old phone booth in his garden, which sits on this little windy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it felt like a perfect solution.
“Soon, people started showing up randomly on his property, and walking right into the phone booth. This has been going on for five years now. Itaru estimates that thousands of people from all over Japan have come to use his phone.”
They come to speak to their loved ones lost and missing. They come to say goodbye.
The sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot writes in her book Exits: Visible and Invisible about the importance of honoring, marking, and ritualizing leave-taking. The Jewish tradition would agree. From Havdalah at the end of Shabbat to Hoshana Rabbah at the end of the fall holidays, on which we sing all the greatest hits from Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot; to benching, the prayer after the meals; from the blessing parents say at a bar or bat mitzvah that recognizes that their child is now an adolescent; to the bedeken at a wedding in which parents of the celebrant offer a parting blessing to their child; Judaism asks us to mark the ending with as much ceremony as we do the beginning. This stands counter to prevailing culture, in which “‘stories have a beginning, middle, and an end...and you [focus on] the beginning.’” We love the start-up entrepreneur, the honeymoon, the lede. What if we instead valued what happened at the other end: a reflection on the way a business conducts itself over a century; a blessing on a long marriage, an author’s conclusion? The beginning contains only the faintest hint of all that is yet to come.
We learn in the Talmud that,
Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. Asked his disciples: Does a man know on which day he will die? Said he to them: So being the case, he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die....
Yom Kippur serves as a “death rehearsal,” a time to fast, wear white clothing that mimic the shrouds we will wear in the casket, and acknowledge we don’t know when our day will come. Yom Kippur reminds us of the tenuousness of every day. We have to treat each leave-taking as if it might be the last one; because it might be.
American Jewish culture is so close to being great at saying goodbye. Think for a moment of the so-called “Jewish goodbye,” which, according to one article, “can be seen at any event involving more than two Jews:

1. [It] begins...with one Jew moving towards another with an expression of regret, followed by whispers in hushed tones: ‘I’m so sorry, but we must get going.’
2. This, the presentation of the Jewish Goodbye, is received with equal expressions of sadness and the common reply of, ‘What? No, we haven’t had dessert yet.’
3. The third step of the ritualistic dance involves a combination of hugs, kisses, and...a conversation about something ‘important’ ….
4. After what may be 40-50 minutes past the original proffering of a goodbye [and eating dessert], the Jew now feels...bloat[ed]. This generates the final conversation about stomach ailments and other recently diagnosed conditions which may or may not be contagious, operable, [or] terminal....
Then they go.
We intuit that something big should happen at that moment of transition. That’s why we don’t just ghost. But we don’t actually do it.

At its most basic, the process of saying goodbye is a type of gratitude practice. Consider the best office farewell party you’ve ever attended. Or the worst. When we take of co-workers, or anyone who has supported us over a period of time, we may be inclined just to leave--and usually no one would fault us. Often there’s water under the bridge that isn’t worth re-hashing, and we just want it to be over already. What would it mean to pause instead, and to offer words of gratitude? Many of us in this room already cultivate a gratitude practice, but often we do it privately, in meditation or prayer or journals. The grateful goodbye asks us to turn to the actual person or people you may never see again, and thank them. Tell your colleague, or your boss, or your work spouse how much you’ve relied on them, how much you’ve learned. Don’t BS; tell what’s true. And then leave. Done right, there’s closure--freedom--in the act.

The truth is that when we say goodbye, we are of course not wholly leaving each other. Even if we don’t see each other, what we have shared will remain with us forever. We can return to what we have learned--even if we can’t even articulate in words what it is they’ve taught us--over and over again. A really beautiful Jewish ritual called the “hadran” explains this better than I ever could. When we finish studying a tractate of Talmud, we don’t just close the book and move on. Instead there’s a series of blessings we say, beginning with the phrase “Hadran Alach:”  “We will return to you, Tractate,” we say, “and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Tractate ____, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate ____, and you will not forget us – not in this world and not in the next world.” No departure is truly final. Not from a book, not from a relationship. With those that matter most, when we go--whether separated by geography or death, whether we leave in anger or sadness--we are never done. We are “armed with the skills, insights, perspectives, and courage that have been forged” by these relationships, with all their blessings and challenges.

My family is moving, and I've been going through the ritualistic process of deciding what to keep and what to throw away. Notebooks from college. Books I once skimmed but know I'll never read again. Photos of friends with whom I'm no longer in touch. As I drop things into the give-away pile, I say goodbye. Not to the objects themselves, in a Marie Kondo, you-no-longer-give-me-pleasure sort of way, but instead to the people and experiences these objects represent. It’s a moment of recognition, of reflection, of gratitude. But it’s by no means permanent. While I say goodbye to the physical book, the experience of reading it is somehow still imprinted on me, still shapes who I am. If we are the sum of our experiences, I am made of each class I've sat in or college roommate I spent a year with, even if the physical artifacts are gone, even if the people are as well. I have the memories, some of which are not even conscious.

Every relationship contains layers of learning. Often they’re understood in the moment. Sometimes, though, they’re only understood in retrospect, once we move on to a new place, a new love. We can return to the memory of old relationships to mine new learning that we will take with us into the future.

But of course there’s still a loss. There will be no immediate future with this person; you will be apart. In that case, you have to gird yourself to face the future and accept that there will be new dreams with new beloveds. Even as the present moment is suffused with fear and loneliness. In the phone booth in Japan,

One call...was from a young father, with rectangle glasses and a long black jacket.
He lost his family-- both parents, his wife-- her name was Mine-- and one-year-old son, named Issei.
[He speaks to them on the phone.]
Dad? Mom? Mine? Issei? Issei? It's already been five years since the disaster. If this voice reaches you, please listen. Sometimes I don't know what I'm living for. Issei, Issei, please let me hear you call me Papa. Papa. Even though I built a new house--Dad? Mom? Mine and Issei--without all of you, it's meaningless.
I want to hear your reply, but I can't hear anything.
He hangs up the phone, takes off his glasses, and covers his eyes with his hands.
I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I couldn't save you.
To say a final goodbye from what you can no longer have--which often but not always takes place in the context of a death, divorce, break-up--takes a certain sort of courage. We acknowledge our own fragility; we acknowledge our loss. Megan Mayhew Bergman, in writing about elegies, notes that

Joan Didion wrote that “when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” It is sometimes not the actual person or place at the heart of a literary elegy, but our relationship to the lost thing, our essence in the wake of its absence. Didion is right. The heart of a[n]...elegy is ourselves. Who we were once and are no longer. What we can no longer have.

Even as we take our learning with us, if we’re being honest we have also to acknowledge how much we lose by their leaving, or by ours. If we are really saying goodbye to a person we once were, then we'll inevitably have to become someone new.

We talk about Shabbat as me’eyn olam ha’ba, a taste of the world to come. Saying goodbye to someone while they’re still alive is me’eyn ha’mavet, a taste of what it will be like when the person--or when you--die. And perhaps that’s what’s most difficult of all. When we say an authentic goodbye, we acknowledge that this might be the very last time we see them. We expose our own neediness, at this precise intersection of two deep truths: we are deeply dependent on each other to survive and grow; and at our core, we’re alone. I don’t know which is more terrifying. “These moments [of parting] are pregnant with paradox--the counterpoint and convergence of vulnerability and toughness, inertia and movement, urgency and patience, chaos and control.” It’s a banquet of all our messiest emotions, and we have to choose them all. It’s exhausting just to think about; perhaps it’s easier to sit back and have more dessert, instead. Or to ghost.

Think for a moment about the people who are important to you. Now imagine them through the lens of goodbye. If you knew they were leaving you for a week, for a month, forever. What would you say? What would you value? Appreciate? What petty disagreements would you let go of? How would you hug them, kiss them? What kind of house would you build for them? What would you say face-to-face so that you wouldn’t need to say it into a phone booth that connects to nothing?

I think back to the people I have had to say goodbye to over the years--Rabbit, my Outward Bound Instructor from the parent-child trip I took with my dad when I was 16, who taught me how to jump off a cliff and take risks I never thought possible, who i’ll never see again and wouldn’t even recognize if I did. My dear college friend Beth Samuels, who taught me what it means to be a welcoming presence to all types of Jews and who died, too young, at 28. My counselors Grace and Mohammed, from Legacy International camp, which I attended when I was in middle school, and who taught me to love Israel while also fighting for Palestinian dignity. My rabbinical school chevruta Adam, who has no interest in mediocrity and with whom I spent untold hours deciphering the arguments of the ancient Talmudic rabbis. And I marvel that most of these people don’t know that I stand stronger in my rabbinate, as a mom and a partner, as a human because of their influence. How much richer my life is because of their teaching, prodding, generosity of spirit, humor, support, arguments. They don’t know that the table they set for me--scratch that, the table I set with their support--is filled to overflowing, and I am grateful beyond measure.

Somewhere in Japan, there is a booth, in which people who without warning lost their loved ones pick up an old, ratty black phone connected to nothing, and talk with people who have died. And some of us in this room will need to find our way of saying goodbye to people who have died, of putting regrets and gratitude and farewells into the ether. But there are plenty of people, still alive, to whom we owe heartfelt words of transition. The framework of an open-hearted and loving leave-taking is an invitation to a new orientation--a new way of appreciating the people in your life. We stand in the liminal space, one hand on the mezuzah, and reach up, reach out, with a kiss. Thank you, we say. Or I’m sorry. In some way, we will return to you, and you will return to us; because of the teachings you have passed on and the way you are in this world, our mind is on you, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, please do not forget us – not in this world and not in the next.

G’mar tov, everyone. May we be signed and sealed for a meaningful new year.

Running Away - Rabbi Shira on Kol Nidrei 5778

Running Away
Rabbi Shira Stutman

When I was five years old, I ran away from home.

There was a lot going on at that time: my parents had decided to move from Philadelphia to Washington, where I would leave my public school and start attending a Jewish day school; my dad had already left for DC to begin his new job; my mom was pregnant with my brother. I decided things would be simpler at my friend Cheryl Price’s house.

I packed my suitcase, grabbed my blankie, and took off.

When I got to Cheryl’s house, it was fun for a little while, but I soon started to regret my decision. Or not regret, exactly: I realized that I hadn’t thought this whole thing through. I didn’t know where I would sleep. Her parents didn’t allow us to eat in the living room. I still didn’t get to make all the choices. (Shocker: I was a pretty head-strong kid.) So I concocted a new plan, which is that I would go live at Brian Kelley’s house. Maybe that’s where I’d feel at home. Fortunately or unfortunately, before I could put Plan B into place, my mom tracked me down and took me home “against my will.” And the next year turned out just fine, as you probably imagined. DC is a solid place to grow up. And Zak, my baby brother? He’ll do.

I have forgotten most of my childhood, which is a serious problem for any rabbi who gives regular sermons and needs material. But this story, the one where I run away to Cheryl Price’s house, I remember. My kids haven’t threatened to run away, thank God, but sometimes they insinuate that such-and-such parent is “better” than me or my husband in a certain way. And I’ll say: “do you really think life would be happier or more meaningful in such-and-such house? Do you think you wouldn’t have the same issues--or different ones?”

“Well, no,” my kids say. Except one time, Natalia quickly retorted, “At least I’d get to eat bacon at my friend’s house.”

True. But is that what you’re really looking for when you run away?

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the biblical book of Jonah. Written about 2,700 years ago, it tells the story of a Hebrew prophet, Jonah, sent by God to prophesy the destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh (a city that still exists today, although we know it by its contemporary name: Mosul, in Iraq). For a number of reasons, he does not want to complete his mission, so he runs away. He boards a ship in Jaffa, and heads to Tarshish. (We don’t exactly know where Tarshish is, but the name is used a few times in the Bible to indicate a place just about as far away as you can imagine.) As the ship sets sail, he goes underdeck to take a nap.

Jonah’s instinctual desire to escape resonates. For many of us, our first response to a difficult situation is to run away. We grab for a quick-fix to whatever issue with which we’re struggling. Your job not working for you? Look for another job. Ghosted on a friend for a few months while they were going through a difficult time, embarrassed about reaching back out? Don’t--just find a new friend. Political craziness weighing on your soul? You deserve to be happy and ignore the rest. Avoidance is your best friend.

For me, the planning stage of the escape is the best part. The fantasy--a workplace with no internal politics, a deep friendship with no conflict, a love affair with someone who fits every single one of my needs. A new apartment with appliances that never break. And me! Don’t forget the me who will be a totally different person in this new situation. I’ll just close the book on the old me. We are lulled by one part of the American dream: when the going gets tough, just hitch up the wagon and go westward. But beware that moment when you realize that you’ve spent more time planning the escape than working on the problem itself.
Let’s try a mind exercise for a moment: think back to 10 years ago. How was your life different? How was it exactly the same? What were some of the moments that you ran from that in retrospect you wish you had run toward? “Human beings,” teaches the psychologist Dan Gilbert, “are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you've ever been. The one constant in our life is change.” To take on a challenge, whatever the challenge, rather than run from it is to recognize exactly how much more there is to grow, and to know, and to experience in this world.

Jonah has basically gone down in history as the prophet who ran away. He gets on the boat--as a passive passenger, not even a hard-working sailor--to the furthest place possible and goes sleep below deck. God gets angry at Jonah and “cast[s] a great wind upon the sea, and such a great storm came upon the sea that the boat was in danger of breaking up” (1.4). The sailors become terrified and start to pray, but not Jonah. He’s still asleep. The captain finds Jonah, wakes him up, and tells him to get praying, as well. They all quickly realize that the storm has come upon them because Jonah has angered his god, YHVH. Jonah knows the only thing that will calm the waters is if they throw him into the sea, but at first the sailors refuse. The storm grows worse, though, so “they lifted Jonah and cast him into the sea--and the sea stopped raging” (1:15).

Many of you know what happens next: Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. For three days and three nights, he prays to God, repents, and asks for deliverance. God responds; the fish spits him out in “Nineveh, the very place to which God had called Jonah in the first place. The moral of the story is yet another paradox: running away from a true calling may be the surest way to run toward it, even though you may arrive soaked and smelly.”

Jonah knew the gig was up; he went into the city to prophesize. And it worked. As a result of Jonah’s preaching, the entire population repents and is spared destruction.

Me from my family; Jonah from God--the moral of the story is the same. Running away doesn’t get you very far. The irony is that Jonah wasn’t thinking clearly when he decided to run away to Tarshish. He forgot that in running away from responsibilities, he was attempting to run away from God. But God caught up with him, which will happen to any of us who are trying to live an authentic life. Because wherever we go, whether to Nineveh or Tarshish, we take ourselves with us. Whatever we’re running from--the fear, the learning, the vulnerability--will most definitely come along as emotional baggage. Running to a new job after a screw-up at the old one keeps you from growing as a professional. Running from one friendship to another may be even more harmful, as a growthful and supportive friendship requires a certain level of intimacy that can only be attained by trial and error, fighting and making up, being thoughtful and curious.

Because the truth is, if you run once, the next time the same challenge strikes (and it will), you may be tempted to run again. And then you’d have to run further, and faster, because the easiest opt-out is no longer available. Even worse, you may not present yourself with a whole heart to the next friend, the next community, the next job, because a small part of you is waiting to go.

The most difficult route is the most effective one. Step away from the escape plan and reorient yourself. What do you want to run toward. Who will you be not if you leave but if you stand your ground, in a growth mindset? This is true cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.

To be clear--running toward or away does not entirely equate with a physical move; it can also be a spiritual or emotional one. When I tell a story about being a cute 5-year-old who leaves home, or even the story of a prophet who gets on a boat, it is only natural that you would infer that physically leaving=running away and physically staying=running toward. But that is not often the case. Some of the strongest cases for so-called “running toward” can happen when you decide to leave a relationship, for instance, or to leave a job to follow a dream. What differentiates the movement as “away” or “toward” has less to do with physical movement and more to do with thoughtfulness, authenticity, and integrity. It privileges moving toward your truth rather than finding a quick-fix or even sitting in safety. When we make big life decisions, we should make them from a place of what we want to move toward, not what we want to move away from.

Jonah could not escape his responsibilities and challenges just by turning his back, jumping on a boat and sailing away. Just the opposite. It is in that moment when we turn around to face the tough places that we are truly “walking in God’s ways,” a phrase repeated often in the Bible and considered one of the most important ideals in Judaism (Sotah 14a).

Rabbi Shai Held teaches that “...[f]aced with a situation that makes us stare the depth and extent of our vulnerability in the face, most of us want to flee. Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain.” Learn to be present for yourself and allow yourself to be in pain and to grow. You can ignore our responsibilities and take a nap while the storm rages around us, but then you’ll just end up sitting alone, deep underwater. We should only be so lucky to have a ship captain who comes to wake us up and to try to remind us, or a mom who comes to Cheryl Price’s house to find us. Find the friends and people who will be that ezer k’negdo, the ones who will support you as you do the hard work, and keep them close.

Think about your own life and struggles. What are you running away from? What have you been avoiding? Dreading? Not dealing with? What can you commit to moving toward? What will your future self thank you for?

A few years ago, I counseled a Sixth & I couple going through a very difficult time. There were terrible betrayals, deeply missed lines of communication, avoidance, anger. Both partners--but especially the one that felt more betrayed--seriously considered divorce. They decided instead--for now--to go into counseling, to recognize where each partner had work to do, to process the betrayal, to try to remain an intact family.

A year ago, I received an email from one of them with the subject line: “things I hold on to.” I cannot imagine a better articulation of what it means to “run towards” rather than “run away” than the following email:

I still have
  • a beautiful baby
  • a job where I am appreciated and praised
  • a job where I get to really help people
  • a house that is appreciating in value, keeps my family safe and warm, and has some really lovely detailing
  • an extended family that provides financial and emotional support
  • A wonderful religious community
  • My faith in God (even if we haven't talked that much without crying lately) {notice it’s ambiguous who’s doing the crying}

I still am:
  • loved by my child
  • loved by my partner
  • part of a family
  • part of a marriage
  • part of a movement to end poverty - that still has some wins if not as many as we want
  • loved by myself
  • loved by God

I cope by
  • Talking about my feelings
  • Watching terrible TV
  • Spending time with those I love
  • Spending too much time on twitter
  • [Drinking] Wine
  • Cooking
  • Snuggling the baby (and sometimes the partner)

That’s it. That’s what you get when you run towards, rather than running away. Bad tv, wine, and the potential to grow in ways unimaginable, even as you still acknowledge you don’t know what the future holds. You don’t get swallowed by a big fish--or when you do, you get spit out onto dry land exactly where you’re supposed to be and go on to do important things. You get to move from Philadelphia to Washington DC and become the big sister to a brother (now two brothers) who have your back like just about no one else in the whole world. You spread God’s love and compassion, you care for the needy, the helpless, the broken. There aren’t always fireworks, and it’s certainly not easy. But life lived more thoughtfully, more reflectively, more openly, a life of moving toward rather than running from--perhaps that’s the sweetest life of all.

Gmar tov, everyone. May we be signed and sealed for a courageous new year.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Who by Apathy - Rabbi Suzy Stone on Rosh Hashanah 5778

Unetanah Tokef: Who By Apathy?

Head held high, I compose myself, and enter the courtroom. Standing before me is the Judge on High. The shofar sounds. Court is in session.
The books of life and death stand open in front of me. Even the angels, who can do no wrong, tremble in fear, and announce: “Let us declare the power of this day, for it is awesome and full of dread.”  

We sit and we stand, we stand and we sit, waiting for our turn to approach the bench. In the echo chamber of my mind I hear an awe-inducing prayer:
On Rosh HaShanah it is written, On Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who by water and who by fire?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by famine and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by disease?

I stand in front of the defendant's table, and sheepishly ask: “Are there any other options?”

G-d says: “U’teshuva, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah ha’g’zerah. Repentance, prayer, and charity have the power to lessen the harsh decree.” And I reply: “Great, I’ll take that one!”

As I leave the courtroom I start to think about how lucky am I. But then, as I am walking home, I can’t help but wonder if I just got “punked” because it sounds like G-d is saying that if I just try a little harder, pray with real kavanah, and give more money to charity that G-d will let me live?

I’m not sure, but this sounds a lot like blackmail. Albeit “divine blackmail,” but still, I am the first to admit that in a post-Enlightenment world it is difficult to believe in a G-d who metes out reward and punishment based on how many good deeds we do (or do not) do.

It does not take a genius to look around and to see that people who do bad things are rewarded with positions of power and wealth, while innocent, good people suffer.

So what does it really mean that repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree?

In order to understand how radical this prayer really we have to understand that throughout the Ancient Near East, from the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires, the concept of fate (and fate alone) ruled the day.

For example, in classical mythology, the Moirai were depicted as three goddesses who would spin the thread of human destiny. They would determine how long you would live, how much suffering you would endure, and exactly when you would die.

These beliefs, made famous by popular Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex & Prometheus Unbound, dominated religious doctrine for the first 1,000 years before the Common Era.

Admittedly, even the early rabbis, known as the Taanaim, were not immune to this thinking. As they taught in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 156a): If you are born on a Sunday, you will be either totally good or totally bad, because this was the day when total darkness was separated from the light. If you are born on Monday, you will be short-tempered. If you were born on Tuesday, you will be rich, but promiscuous…and so on and so forth.

However, by the second generation, the majority of Amoraim, including Rav who was the head of the academy in Sura, declared a radical shift in thinking: “Ain Mazal L’Israel: There is no constellation that determines Israel’s fate.”

Our dependence on astrology ended the minute G-d promises Abraham that he will father a great nation. As the story goes, after years and years of infertility, Abraham is ready to give up on having kids. In that moment G-d appears to Abraham in a dream, and says (Genesis 15:5):

יּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ
He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.”

Perplexed, Abraham shoots back and says: “Master of the Universe, I looked at my astrological map, and according to the configuration of my constellations I am not fit to have a son. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Emerge from your astrology, as the verse states: “And He brought him outside,” as there is no constellation for Israel.”

In other words, this story teaches us that we cannot blame the hardships of our life on fate. I know this may not seem that relative to modern life, but on a more subtle level I think we all slip into this fatalistic thinking now and again. For example, how many of you have ever believed: “bad news comes in threes?” Or how many times in our lives do we simply give up, throw in the proverbial towel, because we are having a bad week, a bad month, or even a bad year?

At some point or another, we have all heard this kind of fatalism from ourselves and from others: “It was just my luck to have lost my job and my boyfriend in the same week!”  Or, “Since I didn’t get into the top-ranked school, I am always going to be seen as a failure.” Or perhaps, a more passive form of fatalism, “I have been having so many health issues this year—what’s one more?” Many of us have had moments in our lives like these, in which we throw our hands up in the air and say: “c’est la vie—such is life.”

But as we stand on the precipice of a New Year, the high holy days are here to remind us that the future is ours to create. As Rabbi David Stern explains, the Unetanah Tokef reminds us of the ugly truth that despite our best efforts and intentions there are natural occurrences that are sealed off from human control.

For example, some of us will be struck by diseases that we have done nothing to deserve. As we witnessed this week, others will swept away by the the maelstrom of hurricanes, floods, and natural disasters that have plagued our nation. These images serve to remind us of an everyday reality: Every second that we take a breath in, someone else in the world expels their last breath. Thus, while science has come a long way in helping us to create and save lives; we have yet to find a way to outmaneuver death.
As the great Jewish “rabbi” Woody Allen once said: “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

That’s because, in the secular world and in American society, human limitation is perceived as defeat. But in the halls of Jewish wisdom we are taught that our limitations are the greatest source of wisdom that we can have. The Unetanah Tokef reminds us that life is short, and today is the day to turn. To do teshuvah and to return to the best version of ourselves. Perhaps this means calling the friend you ghosted months ago. Or reaching out to an ‘ex’ who may have hurt you and asking them for what you truly need.  Now is the time to pick up the phone and call your mom, or dad, or siblings, or extended family just to say ‘I love you.’  
Therefore, what may feel like an outdated theology, in which we beat our chests and ask G-d to wipe our slate clean, is actually a radical Jewish idea that transforms a life of tragedy sealed by fate into a life of hope instilled with free will.
And yet, for many of us sitting here today, the origins and history of this prayer make it no less palatable because it strikes at the heart of our worst fears and frustrations. Over the years, many people have told me that this prayer is the most difficult for them to recite, let alone believe.  For those of us who have faced illness or loss, this prayer affronts our senses, incessantly reminding us our fragility and mortality.
Who wants to praise G-d when He has taken away a loved one, struck us with illness, or simply dangles our future in front of us like a cruel joke? But this is not the G-d I believe in; nor do I believe that this is the true underlying message of this prayer.

Rather, I believe that Unetanah Tokef is read at the apex of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in order to remind us of a simple fact: Do not forget to read the fine print!

It is easy to become distracted by the litany of words, the incomprehensible Hebrew, or the haunting melodies of this prayer. However,  if we don’t pay attention, we will miss one of the most subtle; yet important, lines in this prayer:

אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַּיָּן וּמוֹכִיחַ וְיוֹדֵעַ וָעֵד וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ
It is true that you are the one who judges, and reproves, who knows all, and bears witness, who inscribes, and seals, who reckons and enumerates. You remember all that is forgotten. You open the book of records, and from it, all shall be read. In it lies each person's signature.

This means that there cannot be any unauthorized charges on your card. No mistakes on our record because only we can sign on the dotted line. In other words, this prayer is asking us, perhap imploring us, to become active co-authors in the book of our own life.  Therefore, today we have a big choice to make.

We can either seal ourselves for a year of complacency, fear and stagnation, or we can boldly and beautifully sign off on a year of challenge, of courage, and of growth. We can resign ourselves to unhealthy habits and relationships, or we promise to do everything in our power to change our thought patterns and our ways. We can let arrogance and stubbornness control our emotions, or we can humble our egos and we can truly learn from people who we previously disregarded or demeaned. We can succumb to the overwhelming belief that greed, power and lies, rule the day, or we can take a page from the Rabbis and declare: “Ain mazal l’Yisrael.”

In conclusion, I believe that the Unetanah Tokef prayer is less about judgement and more about action. As Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches: “The annual High Holy Day encounter with death is designed to unsettle our routines, break us free from stagnation, and shock our system out of its instinctive selfishness and indulgence. It compels us to ask, ‘If my life ended now, would it have been worthwhile?”

L’shana Tova Tikatevu,
May we be written, and may co-write ourselves, into the Book of Life for a good year.