WHO SHALL LIVE?
Rosh Hashanah Evening, 5782
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
Rosh Hashanah is a time when we celebrate the past even as we embrace the future. We mark the arrival of the High Holy Days by honoring the old while welcoming the new. We chant ancient words but often add new melody and translation.
This Rosh Hashanah I again partake of the old/new by continuing a tradition that I established some five years ago. Now, on the eve of the Holiday, I’d like to offer a davar torah, a commentary, on one of the key prayers in our holiday liturgy.
After all, we recite these prayers year and year, sometimes by rote. They form the backbone of our service. They move us in an emotive, nostalgic way… but what do they mean? What are we saying? Why are they important?
This year, as we slowly emerge from the pandemic that upended our lives so dramatically, I find myself wrestling with the prayer that contains the most haunting and memorable line of the High Holy Days liturgy. Quite honestly, it is also the prayer that makes many of us the most uncomfortable. It is the prayer that we would most like to ignore or at least reinterpret.
“Who Shall Live; Who Shall Die”.
B’rosh Hashanah yikatevun, u’vyom tzom kippur yayhatemun… mi yichiyeh u’mi yamut
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die.
We chant it in the Hebrew tomorrow morning, plaintively; almost resignedly.
“Who Shall Live; Who Shall die” is a centuries old lament that seems to suggest that our fate is sealed, that judgment, on this Day of Judgment” has been cast. It is found in the section called U’netaneh Tokef, which literally mean Let Us Proclaim the Severity of this Sacred Day. As I say in my introduction to the prayer each year, It is at once the most archaic yet relevant, humbling yet empowering prayer of these Days of Awe.
At times during the height of the pandemic it seemed like our fate was indeed out of our hands. We seemed powerless to stop the plague. Day to day we didn’t know who will live and who will die. We took extreme measures to try to avert the severity of the decree.
Let me read you the full text of the prayer in English, which we don’t do in the morning service, since we chant it in the Hebrew. It is raw and graphic:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on; how many shall be born;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
Who shall perish by fire and who by water;
Who by sword and who by beast;
Who by hunger and who by thirst;
Who by earthquake and who by plague;
Who by strangling and who by stoning;
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven;
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled;
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich;
Who shall be humbled and who exalted.
Our ancestors were all too schooled in hardship and suffering and the many ways we can die. Remember that these prayers originate in the early Middle Ages, when life expectancy was barely half of what it is now, and when war and famine and plague were constants in the life of our people. It is no surprise that they would compose prayers that understood that our fate was essentially out of our hands.
What is surprising is that we choose to preserve and recite these same words. And with all the advances in science and medicine over the centuries, is our destiny any more in our hands than before? I’ve talked with people about this over the years, and it is interesting that some people say yes and some say no. I talk to modern, educated people who insist that we alone determine our fate, while others are adamant that our fate remains largely beyond our control. Can both views be right at the same time? Look how we were initially powerless in the face of the pandemic in the early months, but how we were able to finally turn the tide with vaccines created with our most advanced scientific knowledge coupled with state-of-the-art production and distribution.
Note how this prayer subtly moves from the bodily threats to life to how we respond to these challenges. In other words; from our physical health to our mental health. Who shall be secure; who insecure; who tranquil; who troubled?
Then in the last lines the prayer shifts yet again, to our economic well-being and status. Who shall be poor; who rich; who humbled; who exalted?
The prayer, having compelled us to confront our mortality, concludes in a surprising and provocative way. It acknowledges roah hag’zerah⏤the severity of the decree. Our fate can be harsh and capricious. So much is beyond out control. But not everything. The decree can be tempered. Not wholly, but to some degree by our actions, which always have consequences, and can alter our destiny.
And what are these actions? They are teshuva (repentance), t’filah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity).
The liturgy of the High Holy Days leave no question that we are fallible; we are flawed; it is not if we will make mistakes but when, and the need to forgive and be forgiven is fundamental to our well-being. So it is no surprise that repentance occupies a key place on the road to redemption.
So too the importance of helping our fellow in need. We reach the highest rung of ethical living when we transcend our own egocentricity and serve the other. When we are guided by the better angels of our nature we make for a better world. Tzedakah, with its root in the Hebrew word for justice, means so much more than the charitable impulse when it strikes us, but the insistence of sharing of our wealth and working for a just and equitable society.
Less apparent to the majority of us for whom prayer is not a central but a peripheral part of our lives, is the power of supplication. But to the religious mind, prayer can indeed be life altering. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses it in an oft-quoted passage from our Shabbat siddur:
Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits…. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend of broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.
Rabbi David Teutsch writes:
In our everyday lives, we live with an illusion of control. [This prayer] forces us to admit how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we have no control. I cannot control the unexpected blows that will affect my family, my job, my health. But I can control how I live with them. T’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah will mitigate the bad in the decree. They will not stop the blows that come our way, but they can radically transform how we are affected by them.
We have collectively been through a harrowing year and half, but we know that life’s challenges are present in our lives all the time.
In this regard I think it is appropriate to cite another, very well-known appeal, often referred to as the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
May our acts of repentance, charity and prayer temper the decree at this New Year, or at the very least, give us strength to strive and solace to accept.