October 4, 2022 – 10 Tishrei 5783
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
There’s a prayer in our morning liturgy, Asher Yatzar, that has renewed meaning for me each time I overcome illness, no matter how minor or severe. It’s sometimes referred to as the bathroom prayer because it praises God for our bodies functioning correctly and some Jews recite it after each time they use the bathroom. And while that might sound silly or crass, any of us who has had to make a mad rush for the bathroom can appreciate when everything once again worked the way it was intended. In the days and weeks after recovering from illness, when I encounter Asher Yatzar, it slows me down and I remember to thank God for my body and how it works.
There’s another prayer that has a similar effect on me once a year, at least, a prayer that appeared in our morning liturgy on Rosh Hashanah, which we’ll encounter again tomorrow morning, as well. The prayer is known as the Unetaneh Tokef. Literally, “Let us proclaim.” It is a piece of poetry and its central text begins “B’rosh Hashanah yikateivun; uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun… On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” And what is it that is written and sealed? “Who shall live and who shall die.” Where Asher Yatzar reminds me the wonder of my physical body, Unetaneh Tokef reminds me of my potential for change. As terrifying as these lines of the Unetaneh Tokef are, it embodies our potential to change the world: “Ut’shuvah, ut’filah, utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-g’zeirah, but through return to the right path, through prayer and righteous giving, we can transcend the harshness of the decree.” Or, as some will recall from the red Gates of Repentance, “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes, “This prayer makes use of a central metaphor of the Days of Awe – God as King/Judge – to show us a pageant in which every living being passes before God as a flock of sheep passes before the shepherd.” On Rosh Hashanah our deeds are written in Sefer Zichronot, the Book of Remembrance, and by Yom Kippur our fate, it seems, is sealed. But what are t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah and how can they change our fate?
But before that, let’s address the troubling theology of the Unetaneh Tokef. What is this prayer meant to instill in us? How do we pray, “Who by water?” when Hurricane Ian’s devastation is still so fresh? How do we pray, “Who by war?” when Ukraine has been under siege for over 7 months? And how do we pray “Who will be troubled … and who tormented?” when it seems that is all of us in this broken world? It would seem that all of this would only make this prayer more frightening. My colleague and friend Rabbi Marci Bloch teaches that perhaps this prayer is meant to frighten us, to remind us of our mortality, to scare us into living.
“One of the problems some of us have with [the] Unetaneh Tokef is the implication that destiny might be an indicator of goodness.” At face value, it would tell us that the person who dies painfully or whose life is cut short, or who dies in the weeks ahead, somehow lacked sufficient righteousness. Let me be clear: That theology is appalling. We know people who engage sincerely in t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah who nonetheless suffer or their lives end too soon. This theology cannot be what this prayer is meant to inspire.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes, “I don’t think that’s what the prayer is saying. It doesn’t offer that kind of simplistic moral calculus. Instead I see here that some of us will prosper and some will suffer (seems undeniable, really) and that tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can ‘avert the severity of the decree’ – not ‘change the laws of the universe,’ not ‘prevent suffering and death,’ but soften whatever is on its way.” Nothing is preordained, even if we think this prayer suggests it. If we look closely at the text, it is we, not God, who leave our imprint in the Book of Remembrance. We write in the Book of Remembrance with every choice, action, and word. “I suggest that we take this prayer not as a statement of theological reality, but rather as a dramatic goad to do teshuvah, repentance. In other words, don’t take it literally, but do take it seriously.”
If we walk away from the High Holy Days with only one message, it should be that we possess the ability to change, not just ourselves, but the world. And we are called to that sacred work. While we may not believe, as I do not, that God is doling out death sentences today, the text is nonetheless true. Some will live and some will die. No one, ultimately, escapes the natural order of the rhythm of life and death. The Unetaneh Tokef tells us that the tools to bring about that change are encapsulated in t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah.
These terms, usually translated as repentance, prayer, and charity, mean so much more in Hebrew than the English translations convey. While repentance evokes regret and remorse and sometimes a fresh start, which are certainly part of teshuvah, teshuvah indicates a turning around. Judaism teaches us that we are all inherently good. We have free will and we make mistakes, but at our core, each of us is a tzelem Elohim, an image of God. T’shuvah isn’t about becoming something new. It’s about returning to our authentic, good selves. It is about returning to our Source, and reuniting our souls with the Soul of the universe. T’shuvah is about seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole.
The simple translation of t’filah is prayer, which is often about request, sometimes about gratitude. But t’filah goes deeper. According to Rashi, t’filah is about union with God. It is about aligning our will with God’s will. Prayer is more than an expression of our needs, gratitude, and praise. It is a reaching for and towards God. Sincere prayer in any format, teach the Sages, best reaches God.
To put it bluntly, charity is a terrible translation of tzedakah. Charity implies an act of kindness and generosity, one in which the recipient isn’t necessarily deserving. It is giving alms to the poor. Tzedakah, however, implies justice and righteousness. It shares its root with tzedek, justice. Judaism teaches that everything we have actually belongs to God. The money that God has given us is on trust that we will share it with those in need. They deserve our help. It is not an act of charity, but an active of justice when we give tzedakah.
In this understanding, “the true meaning of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, then, is a Jew returning to [their] true self – teshuvah; a Jew achieving union with God – tefillah; and a Jew acting justly – tzedakah.” T’shuvah is inward, soul searching. T’filah is upward, toward God. Tzedakah is outward, through acts of justice. This is the power of the Unetaneh Tokef. “Somehow, our prayer insists, human beings have the power to affect the cycles of life and death that appear beyond our grasp.” This is both inward- and outward-facing power. We can transform ourselves and, thereby, our fate, through t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah. This is the question before us this evening: what can each of them look like in our lives?
Let’s take them in the order they appear in the Talmud: t’filah, tzedakah, and t’shuvah. T’filah. A personal prayer practice, either alone or with community, reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, that we are part of a larger whole. Even unfamiliar words, words we may be able to say, but cannot understand, or even words we do not know how to say, can create stability in our lives when we hear them year after year, month after month, week after week. “There is power in these prayers, a power to transport us away from these seats… and to connect us with a grander mythic drama that plays out over centuries and millennia instead of mere lifetimes.” Look through our prayer book. Our liturgy tells us, “that there is purpose and intention suffusing creation;” that every moment is sacred; that our actions matter, not only for us, but for the whole universe. Engaging in t’filah, having a prayer practice, guides us toward that view of the world and gives life meaning.
Tzedakah. “The concept of tzedakah teaches us that not only can we affect the world around us; we are obligated to do so.” While tzedakah is often broadly defined as all forms of charitable giving and even good deeds performed, traditionally it is specifically gifts to the poor. My colleague, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane writes, “The purpose of tzedakah is to sustain those who are vulnerable of losing their lives, literally providing for their basic needs.” True engagement in tzedakah means giving every time, even if all we have to give is a warm smile or a kind word. It means that everyone must give tzedakah, even those who depend upon it; no one is exempt. And it means that when faced with insurmountable need, we don’t give up. We make whatever difference we can make.
Here, where t’filah is about internal growth and tzedakah is about external connection, t’shuvah is a combination of the two of them, both internal and external. T’shuvah involves internal feelings of remorse and a desire to return to our best selves and external actions that remedy the situation and make amends. “Teshuvah doesn’t erase the past, and it certainly doesn’t justify or excuse our mistakes. But wonderfully, teshuvah does allow us to become better people and to rebuild damaged relationships.”
Each of these is about our own personal growth, how we strive to be our best selves, but t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah are also essential ingredients in our efforts to repair the world, as well, not just ourselves. When faced with a broken world, Judaism demands that we do our part to mend the world. While we humans often focus on the evils of others when contemplating our broken world, this day demands that we look not to place the blame, but to refining ourselves and figuring out what we can do to make it better. Nowhere does our liturgy focus on the repentance, prayer, and charity of others.
“If personal t’shuvah meant making peace in the wake of wrong actions, an outward-facing teshuvah involves openness to changing our minds when confronted with new and compelling ideas.” The regular recitation of prayer teaches us the core values of our tradition: we are God’s partners in creation and responsible for its well-being; God redeems the oppressed through our actions in the world. “Perhaps, through sincere reflection and study, some of us will raise freedom as a top priority. Others will focus on health, love, or peace. The siddur, the classic book of Jewish prayers, is overflowing with values that we could spend our life promoting.”
Where an inward-facing tzedakah was sharing what we have with those in need, outward-facing tzedakah is about justice in our world. “To the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, tzedakah meant protecting the poor and the vulnerable and standing up for what’s right even—and especially—when it’s not popular,” it is our call to join with others in repairing the world.
“Prayer, repentance, and righteousness won’t change the human condition,” writes Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, “but they can help us deal with it gracefully and with more joy.” She continues, “If [the] implications [of Unetaneh Tokef] are uncomfortable for you—if the dominant metaphor distances you, or just doesn’t feel relevant—try simply listening to it as you would a poem. Marvel at its rhythm and assonance and symbolism.” Perhaps its message of death is not an end of life, but, as the Tarot card reader renders it, a moment of transformation. “Unetaneh Tokef is a chance to stand before the aspect of God which remembers everything we’ve forgotten about ourselves. It’s an opportunity to know that we’ve been seen fully, and that when we walk away we’ll be writing the next chapter of the Book of Remembrance, so we’d better choose our words with care.”
In 5783, may we see ourselves as a valuable part of something greater than ourselves. May we engage in resilient care of one another. And may we become better people. May we return to our authentic selves, find connection with God, and become agents of justice in God’s world. Together, let us inscribe ourselves for blessing. G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life. And if you are fasting, may you have a meaningful fast. Shanah tovah.
 Rachel Barenblat, Everyday I write the book, Velveteen Rabbi, https://www.velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2005/10/everyday_i_writ.html.
 Jeff Hoffman, Unetaneh Tokef: Repentance, Prayer and Charity Cancel the Decree? TheTorah.com, https://www.thetorah.com/article/unetaneh-tokef-repentance-prayer-and-charity-cancel-the-decree/.
 Yosef Loebenstein, ed., Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah: The Ten Days of Repentance, from the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/2301372/jewish/Teshuvah-Tefillah-Tzedakah.htm.
 Daniel Kirzane, Rosh Hashanah 5780 – Repentance, Prayer, and Charity, http://www.danielkirzane.com/sermons/rosh-hashanah-5780-repentance-prayer-and-charity/, September 29, 2019.
 Barenblat, Everyday I write the book.