Why the Un’taneh Tokef Scares Me and What We Can Do About It
I have a tough time with prayer. Often, my idea of God prevents a relationship in which asking for something results in receiving it directly, or one in which blessings of thanks can be understood or appreciated easily. I also struggle to buy into the literal meaning of various prayers.
When I read a blessing praising God for freeing the captive or clothing the naked, it reminds me of the very real inequities in our criminal justice system and the crushing poverty that affects so many around the world. God has not yet freed the captive or clothed the naked, and so my prayer experience has to become abstract and metaphorical to make any sense of the words. I try to reinterpret the blessing, asking God for help to get angry at injustice and fight for sentencing reform, economic justice, and the work of repairing a broken world. But there is always a bit of a gap. I need to translate more than just the Hebrew, twisting both God and what I am talking to God about through metaphor to arrive at a place where I feel I can say the prayers honestly.
This is why I am struck by the Un’taneh Tokef, a liturgical poem that dates to before the 8th century and is prominent in the High Holiday liturgy. The poem represents God as a divine, monarchal judge, who passes judgment on us and our actions of the past year:
On Rosh HaShanah it is inscribed, And on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, Who shall live and who shall die, Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.
I struggle with an image of God as a figure who predetermines the fates of individuals. What comes next, however, the potential fates the author envisions God decreeing, come straight from my fears of the future on a warmer planet.
When the Un’taneh Tokef asks, “Who shall perish by water and who by fire,” I instantly connect. North America has recently dealt with devastating hurricanes that have taken lives, destroyed houses, and left people without necessities. These storms are made more intense and dangerous by the warming of our planet. Over the past few months, when I was back at home in Colorado, I saw unusually hazy skies and colorful sunsets. They were a cruel and ironic result of an historic number of forest fires caused by record-breaking dry summers. Although I may need to understand God through layers of metaphor, these real, visible consequences speak directly to my experiences.
The Un’taneh Tokef asks “Who by famine and who by thirst?” Last week, in my new role as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I met with two interfaith partners from Lutheran and Anglican development organizations in Tanzania and Malawi. They spoke about how climate change is affecting local farmers, who are dealing with irregular rain patterns and new, migrating pests they do not know how to combat. After that meeting, the question in the poem is no longer rhetorical. Famine and thirst are real threats these farmers now face due to climate change.
The intense fear, dread, and terror the poem’s author expresses about his or her potential fate speak directly to my fears of climate change. The author’s anxiety about the future was the same anxiety I experienced when President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a major international climate change deal. For once, I do not have to reinterpret or reimagine the prayer to make it meaningful – and that is terrifying, strange, and unsettling.
The poem ends the stanza by comforting that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah (using money to do the work of world-repair or, literally, justice) avert the severity of the decree.” I find that this statement, too, does not require the level of abstraction I’m used to. We know that repenting – which includes efforts to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions – will lessen the effects of climate change. We know that prayer, when it includes supporting our friends and neighbors, can help make our communities stronger and more resilient when we do face climate change’s effects. We know that tzedakah can fund projects that help protect the most disadvantaged people by helping them recover when the effects of climate change strike.
If you share my fears about a future on a warmer planet, ask your governor to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Doing so is one way we can repent, pray, and repair the world around climate change.
The Un’taneh Tokef scares me. The tragic ends it describes have become imminent possibilities in the world. One of the themes of the High Holidays, one highlighted by the Un’taneh Tokef, is that our actions have consequences. The consequences of failing to act on climate change worried the poet of the Un’taneh Tokef centuries ago and equally worry this 22-year-old today.