This evening we begin the observance of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Many Jews who never step foot in a synagogue during the rest of the year will do so this evening and/or tomorrow, even though they are unsure why. Perhaps it is guilt. Perhaps tradition. For everyone the reason is different. But I would would expect that for many, it is not because of the meaning of the liturgy. For so many the patriarchal, hierarchical God imagery found in the liturgy can be off-putting. The idea that we are like sheep being led before a God that sits on a throne in judgment deciding whether or not we shall be “written in the Book of Life” holds little or no meaning. This is unfortunate.
I suppose if one views the liturgy in a more literal sense, it can indeed seem anachronistic and downright silly. But the texts were always meant as metaphor or allegory. Whatever one's view of God might be, I don't think anyone ever believed in the image of the old man on the throne sitting in judgment. And yet, so many dismiss the liturgy because they cannot view the old liturgy through contemporary eyes. Otherwise intelligent people seem to somehow regress and lose their ability to view these texts as adults and instead seem to regress to the become children once again when faced with the prayers that have been ingrained in them since childhood. It is as if they feel on some level that they either must accept the prayers as they were taught or experienced them as children or they must reject them in their entirety. In doing this they miss the opportunity not only to reconnect to ancient liturgy and our ancestors, but they miss the opportunity to uncover their own connection to tradition.
Perhaps one of the most difficult prayers for many is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that is central to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. This medieval prayer is the one that specifically speaks of us passing before God lie sheep before a shepherd. God then determines “who shall live and who shall die” - and the prayer then lists the various means by which one might meet one's demise in the coming year, if that is indeed one's fate.
The historical context of this prayer, which was written in medieval times when Jews were indeed being persecuted and executed, helps one understand why this imagery was indeed so powerful. But what about for us today? We no longer face persecution as did our ancestors (yes, antisemitism still exists, but that is not the issue here). That is why, beginning in the 1970s (I believe) interpretive translations were written. In the one I remember most it is no longer literally “who by water and who by fire,” but instead it is the fire of jealousy or drowning in a sea of despair (I apologize for any misquoting, but I can't seem to find the actual prayer at the moment). Though I believe it is powerful to connect the ancient words with our modern reality, I also believe something is lost in the interpretation.
The original prayer begins “let us acknowledge the awesome holiness of this day” and imagines that even the angels stand trembling in fear before God. No one, not even the angels, are exempt from fear and awe on this day. Today we are often uncomfortable thinking about our relationship with God, if we have one, as based on fear. But there is indeed power in that image. Too often we try to avoid pain and fear in our life, and yet both are necessary parts of life. But it is not fear that a supernatural God will punish us (at least for me) but fear of what happens to us if we don't look at our lives honestly. This is the source of the holiness of the day, or that which connects us with the divine within and around us.
Mindfulness is about nothing if it is not about being aware of who and what we are in the moment. And though it teaches that we cannot live in the past, for it is gone, it does not mean that we should not look at how our past actions have contributed to who we are in this very moment. And that can indeed invoke fear in us. And we must sit with that fear and sadness. We must acknowledge what we have done that has brought pain and suffering into our lives or our world. Then we must do what we must to seek forgiveness from others if those actions had a negative impact on them. Only then can we be at one with them, ourselves and the Divine.
The prayer posits that our teshuvah, the return to our truest self, will have an effect on the coming year. Mindfulness posits that the future is but a dream, it is unknown. We only have the present. But these concepts do not contradict one another. Rather, the work of teshuvah in the present moment will have an effect on the future. How can it not? We just don't know what that effect will be, nor should we try to guess.
So my suggestion to those of us who are uncertain of how to approach the Unetaneh Tokef or other traditional liturgy to simply be present with the discomfort that arises within as we read or listen to the words. Do not judge ourselves, but do not judge the prayers either. Instead, pay attention to what arises within. If it is fear, sit with the fear. If it is anger, sit with the anger. If it is compassion, sit with the compassion. If it is all of the above and more (which it usually is) then sit with what is. Look within with the combination of awe and love that is at the center of this holiday season. Be compassionate and gentle with yourself as you think back on what you have done this past year, but be honest! Even if that honesty is the source of pain and fear. It's the only way to go.
In the end, our actions on this holiest of days will indeed impact who we are now, which will impact who we are becoming. God determining “Who shall live and who shall die” is indeed a powerful metaphor. This is especially so if we remember that we are part of God and God a part of us, so we are the ones determining the who and what we are becoming. We are the shepherd and the sheep. We are the compassionate ones and the ones in need of compassion. That is how we should approach the prayer and the day.
May we all be sealed for a good year of peace, compassion and love.