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U'Netaneh Tokef -- Will We Live?

09/04/2013 01:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, respectively, we recite the "U'Netaneh Tokef" prayer, attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 11th century (though likely actually written centuries earlier), which extols a list of ways a person can die as punishment for sinning -- by water, by famine, by plague, by beast, etc. -- stating that through repentance, prayer, and righteous acts we can overturn our just rewards. This prayer, recited multiple times over the course of the days, evokes the image of G-d in heaven weighing our souls on a scale with sins on one side and merits on the other. It serves as a reminder on Rosh Hashana that judgment takes place eight days later on Yom Kippur when the Book of Life is sealed, hopefully with our names inscribed in it. Therefore, during the seven days between the Holy Days, we ask people for forgiveness for wrongs we have done to them, we pray for repentance from G-d, and we do righteous acts to tip the scales in our favor.

But how do we construe this liturgy for those who don't believe in a G-d who can influence the world? Without a judge in heaven, our lives would remain un-assessed. On the other hand, we can take this reminder of our mortality not as a trial potentially resulting in capital punishment but as an urging to not let life pass us by. The pinnacle point of this liturgy is mi yichye u mi yamut -- "who shall live and who shall die." How often do we let things keep us from living our lives?

Our attachments can be obstacles: the stuff we keep that clutters our physical and mental worlds, the slight we can't ignore that distracts, a grudge against an acquaintance that keeps us from enjoying companionship, rude comments that make us angry. All these stand in the way of engaging in our lives and realizing possibilities.

Similarly, how often do we let circumstances limit us? A few weeks ago, a friend cancelled our plans last-minute and I realized I had two options: I could spend the evening being upset or I could make other plans. We constantly find ourselves in less-than-ideal situations, yet it's not the circumstances but rather how we react to them which determines what the outcome will be.

We can even choose whether we will be fully debilitated by some ailments. Two friends had the same limiting disease. One let it dictate his life while the other, whom it affected more strongly, did everything he could to keep it from limiting him. The latter went with friends to restaurants he couldn't eat at and sat without ordering for the sake of being social; the former stayed home, begrudging the disease for the choice he made. Likewise, my 90-year-old grandmother often comments that while it hurts to walk, she knows the alternative of being unable to walk would be worse. Yes, there are debilitating diseases and ailments, but we can choose how we react to them.

Lastly, do we really live our lives, or just trudge through them? How often do we find on Friday we are unable to recall what we spent the week doing? Are we aware of the leaves on the trees changing colors and the energy we put into our work? Or do the months pass unnoticed by us? Awareness means we are present in our lives.

The U'Netaneh Tokef liturgy continues, "but repentance, prayer, and righteous acts lessen/annul the severe decree." Why is it necessary to engage in repentance, prayer, and righteous acts? Why is it insufficient to just seize the day? Because Judaism is a communal religion -- we need a group of ten to pray, we don't believe in cloistered living, we understand that joy comes from communal engagement, we value studying Torah in small groups over studying alone -- so it is not enough to live just for ourselves. Following these three prescriptions makes us better people and helps us to contribute to making society more amicable:

Repentance. Acknowledging our wrong doings allows us to realize the effects our actions have on others. By seeing the larger picture, we can make amends to those we have wronged and avoid repeating the wrong.

Prayer. Praying reminds us that the world is larger than we are. Whether prayers take the form of liturgical texts or meditation or personal utterances, whether they are to the traditional G-d, a non-god presence (including the laws of science) or even the concept of oneness, sentiments involved in prayer remind us that the world is controlled by forces larger than we are and so we should stop thinking we are able to change everything.

Righteous Acts. Since the world is greater than we are, we each have a responsibility towards the greater good. Society provides for us and we should acknowledge it by giving back. Beyond just improving the world, doing righteous acts also helps us become more compassionate and caring. Altruism works both outwardly and inwardly.

Through this interpretation, we are not repenting, praying, and doing righteous deeds for the sake of skirting an unwanted judgment, but rather realizing our mortality in a different way -- that as we only have limited time on earth, we should not squander precious time in insignificant and limited ways. A simple roadmap given for how to live our lives helps us to live more meaningfully and to positively affect others in the process.

Have a sweet New Year and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.