Unataneh Tokef: The Evil Decree

Jonathan Katz

Rosh Hashanna Day 1

September 30, 2019

Happy New Year!

For me, the most emotionally immediate prayer recited on Rosh Hashana is the “Untaneh Tokef,” which occupies a prime-time slot in the Musaf service.  The initial question posed is: In the coming year who will live and who will die?  The prayer reminds us of our fragility and goes on to ask additional difficult and meaningful questions, which seem to deal with state-of-mind. Who will have serenity (or not)? Who will be at rest (or not)? Who will be tranquil (or not)?  Who will be uplifted (or not)?  And most captivatingly, who will come to a timely or untimely end?  And then in unison we recite the answer that our tradition provides:

“And Teshuva, And Tefilah, And Tzedakah annuls the Evil Decree.”

A simple interpretation of this prayer’s metaphor, that likens us to sheep passing under the shepherd’s rod for a life and death judgment on this day, may lead to the conclusion that if we do those three things G-d will spare our lives over the coming year. But I reject the premise that G-d visits illness and death on sinners, so here is how I’ve come instead to view this prayer’s message.

Let’s consider, in more detail, the prescribed antidote U’Teshuva, U’Tefilah, U’Tzedakah…” No matter the translation, the sentence starts with the word “And,” which puts the Three T’s on equal footing. They are interlocking concepts that reinforce each other to synergistic effect and help create a space, a sort of mental landscape, in which to work through things that relate to past or potential regrets or to unfinished priorities.

As I am faced with the reality of a terminal diagnosis, I have been immersed in the challenging process of preparing for the inevitable.  I am on high alert to confront the tasks that I should do while I am alive that will allow me to peacefully let go of my place in the world without regrets or fear with regard to legacy. Much of my work toward this goal has been done in partnership with my wife Terry and can be discussed from the perspective of the Three Ts; at least as I interpret these processes.

The coda to the Untaneh Tokef prayer suggests three specific tools which repair and deepen our relationships and address our most important priorities.  Let’s look at these tools.  The dictionary translation of Tefilah is “prayer.” But let’s broaden the concept to include any deeply self-reflective thought.  While we each face the prospect of our own death, this inevitability is something that most of us avoid thinking or talking too much about. The prayer reminds us though that this is work that must be done, that proper intention and mindset as the result of internal reflection are powerful personal resources by which to confront the reality of one’s own death. One’s priorities, core values, and aspirations are clarified as one processes past memories as well as important present concerns. But such self-reflection also exposes a counterfactual reality in which we suppose that we might have made different decisions knowing, in hindsight, what we know now.  Without a proper set of tools, such rumination can be self-defeating as one falls into a trap of self-recrimination.  That’s where Teshuva comes in.

Teshuva is a process that starts with a sense of personal regret for one’s past actions and which leads, ideally, to a state of self-acceptance, allowing one to move ahead without the burden of those regrets.  Teshuva is effective because it prescribes that after the realization of regret, real-life action is the necessary next step towards repairing mistakes and sowing good seeds for the future.  It is a liberating and comforting process that can bring people closer and sooth regret.  Ultimately, Teshuva provides a path toward acceptance, forgiveness and kindness towards others, and to one’s self.   Which brings us to the closely related concept of Tzedakah.

Tzedakah, at its core, it is about showing kindness. Money can obviously be of great help to people in need, so I am not discounting the role of monetary generosity.  But being kind to people in one’s own mind is no small thing either. 

There are many flavors of non-monetary Tzedakah.  There’s the kind where you forgive someone else, or, where someone forgives you.  The kind where you forgive yourself.  The kind where you help someone else forgive themselves. And then there’s the kind where, in your mind, despite an initial impulse, you privately and (to borrow from the idea of monetary tzedakah) anonymously forgive someone for being the way they are and then go on to show them kindness. That begins to sound a lot like Teshuva and Tefilah too, doesn’t it? They are entangled processes. And this all naturally takes time to work through.  The prayer serves as a reminder that this work needs to be done, and done soon, while one still can.

So, on to perhaps the most important question:  What is “The Evil Decree”?  Clearly it pertains to death, but death is a natural occurrence; so what aspect of the decree is evil rather than just an expression of the inevitable fate of all living creatures?  I recently encountered English translations that render the phrase as “The evil in the decree” which is closer to how I am thinking of it.

As I’ve already personally dismissed “reward and punishment” issues as an answer, in my mind the evil decree is related rather to the idea of the “untimely death” mentioned in the Untaneh Tokef. But what does “untimely” mean?  How long should one expect to live?  Is there ever a particularly good time to say goodbye to life? I don’t have that answer for anyone else, but for me at the age of nearly 62, I have been able to summon and maintain the highest level of gratitude for what I consider to be a full life, and that sense of gratitude has been a powerful antidote to the feeling that the decree is evil.

I have been fortunate to feel that I have, to some degree, avoided some of the obstacles to peace that can arise from any number of mundane distractions, misplaced priorities, or important things left unsaid that could have provided future comfort to loved ones. But I am acutely aware that this is often not possible given the circumstances of death that frequently happen to people without warning and adequate preparation.  So, I am grateful to have had the time to put things in order and to share and savor past and present moments of my life with loved ones and friends.

I also think a lot about the future; about the people, endeavors and ideas that I most care about and that I hope will have an impact in my afterlife.  I ask myself what seeds I can sow in this world that may come to fruition in the world to come?  To be clear, when I say “the world to come” I am referring to our real world on earth, as it will continue without me.  So, which of my priorities in the present world would I want carried on into the “world to come”? Those priorities are what Tefilah, Teshuvah, andTzedakah can clarify and make stronger.  The pressing realization that I have only limited time to address so many tasks compels me to get important things done while I still can.  It is a demanding and rewarding process that has been made easier by the loving support of Terry, my daughter Molly, my family, my friends and my Kohelet community.

The poetry of the Untaneh Tokef invites each of us into our own thought experiment concerning our mortality.  Here’s what it says to me: It is Rosh Hashannah. The sound of a great Shofar is heard.  Here are the stakes. Prepare. Use the tools of introspection, a charitable mindset, and real-life action to make the things that matter to you as good as you can while you can.

L’Shana Tova,

Jonathan

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