Unetanah Tokef - In the Wake of the Decree
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… Who shall live and who shall die… Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented… but teshuvah, repentance; tefilah, prayer; and tzedakah, acts of righteous compassion, will annul et ro’ah ha-gezera, the severity of the decree.
What is the meaning of these few lines, some of the most familiar in the High Holy Day liturgy, specifically three questions that emerge from them:
What do we make of this notion of God's decree?
How is it possible for human actions-repentance, prayer, and tzedakah-to influence divine actions?
Precisely what do we imagine will change for us if we perform these actions?
In other words, I'd like to explore with you the ideas of fate and free will, and how they interact, especially in the imagery evoked in the prayer I cited above.
First, a traditional Chinese parable:
Long ago in a remote village in China, there lived a man whose only possession was his horse. One day the horse ran away. “Ah, terrible fortune!” lamented the poor man. But a few days later, his horse returned, with a beautiful wild mare by its side. “Ah,” said the man. “Good fortune!” But when the man's only son tried to break in the new horse, it threw him, and he broke his leg. “Ah,” said the man. “Terrible fortune!” Shortly after this, a military recruiter came through the village, drafting every able-bodied man into the emperor's army. Since the man's son had a broken leg, he was not considered fit to serve. “Ah,” said the man. “Great fortune!”
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