The Supreme Court of the Universe has come to order. Its Sole Judge has taken His seat at the bench as court officers and officials flit about performing their tasks. There is much dread and anxiety as the shofar sounds to call everyone to silence, and the only voice that is heard is the still, small voice that obscures its tremendous power. The Judge sits and take account of all beings and all deeds, and sentence is passed on each and every defendant: who shall live, who shall die. Who shall prosper, and who shall suffer impoverishment. Who will be empowered, and who will suffer humiliation.
This is the scene described in Unetaneh Tokef, a highlight of the High Holiday liturgy traditionally recited before the Kedushah of Musaf. We may be familiar with the story that ascribes its authorship to a rabbi in
The scene is one of fear and dread, leaving all silent and helpless before the Almighty Judge. But one line shatters this image, telling us that all is not lost. As guilty as we are, we are told that we have recourse; “Teshuvah, (repentance,) Tefillah, (prayer,) and Tzedakah, (acts of righteousness,) diminish the severity of the decree.” Of all things, why do these three acts matter? And how do we know that they make a difference?
A midrashic text may offer us an answer. Midrash is more than stories and parables; it attempts teach us any meaningful lesson that we can derive from Biblical texts, our holiest writings. The rabbis of the Midrash, often the same rabbis who are cited throughout the Talmud, need to justify their teachings through offering Biblical proof texts, verses that verify the validity of their interpretation. We are told that the proof text for this central assertion of Unetaneh Tokef comes from a verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14:
R. Yudan [said] in the name of R. Leazar:
Three things discharge the decree, and they are:
Tefillah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah,
And these three are found together in a single verse:
“when My people… pray,” – this is tefillah
“seek My face,” – this refers to tzedakah, as it says:
“and I, with righteousness (tzedek) will grasp Your face,” (Ps 17:15)
“and turn from their evil ways,” – this is teshuvah-
then, “…I will forgive their sins…” (Midrash Bereshit Rabba 44.)
Careful readers of Unetaneh Tokef will likely stop and scratch their heads when they read this passage, because despite their similarities there are also some differences between them. And if we look for other versions of this midrash elsewhere in rabbinic literature, we will come up with a consistent conclusion, that Unetaneh Tokef departs from the midrash upon which it is most likely based. Is Unetaneh Tokef out to teach us something new and different?
The first thing we note is that there is a variation in the order of elements. The prooftext and the rabbinic texts place tefillah first, tzedakah second, and teshuvah third, while the author of Unetaneh Tokef places teshuvah before the other two. What can we make of this? Perhaps it makes sense to put teshuvah first because this is a poem intended for Rosh Hashannah, and repentance is foremost on one’s mind. But this variation in order teaches an important lesson as well. We find a progression that is significant, both to the time, and to the necessary ingredients for improving the personal encounter with the Divine. Teshuvah requires introspection, recognizing the imperfection of the self, the frailty of the human condition, and the admission of our faults before the Almighty. Next, tefillah opens up the lines of communication between the Jew and the Almighty that allows for the presence of God to be manifest to the individual and that allows the individual to become ever more present before God. Last, tzedakah advances the human – Divine encounter beyond the individual by making the human an agent of Godliness on earth and among His creations. By tzedakah we mean not just the simple act of dropping coins in a pushke or writing a check – these may be important aspects of tzedakah, but what is more important is how we act to bring about balance and harmony within creation. What we do to enable the hungry to eat, the homeless to live in safety and security, the jobless to stand on their own two feet, the captive to find freedom, the lost soul to find community, for us to share as custodians of creation by helping to heal its wounds and mend its rifts – this is tzedakah in its full sense. As we perform this role, we become almost indispensable to God and for His creation.
Thus, the verse can be understood as follows: God says, when His people engage in prayer, practice the ways of His presence (through tzedakah,) and turn away from wrongdoing (through teshuvah,) God will forgive. So we go from mending our own standing before God through teshuvah, to establishing a relationship with God through tefillah, and finally, to acting as an agent of God through tzedakah.
Unetaneh Tokef takes another subtle twist from the rabbinic sources cited earlier. Those texts speak of tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah as means for cancelling the decree. Unetaneh Tokef, however, states that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah diminish the severity of the decree. Unetaneh Tokef grapples with the presence of evil and the challenge of how one perceives it. How can one understand divine forgiveness in light of the misfortune or suffering of a person who lives a blameless or righteous life? This question has plagued many a theologian from time immemorial, and we are not likely to answer it anytime soon. What we do know is that the perceptions of misfortune and suffering can make a difference in the way we act and react to its challenge. One who sanctifies the encounter with God through repentance, prayer, and righteousness likely responds to adversity with equanimity; while one who suffers and lives discordantly with misfortune may cause disquietude and wrongdoing as a result. Our perceptions of evil are sometimes the very causes of, or excuses for, evil; through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, we can mitigate the evil that comes into the world by rising above pain, misfortune, and misery.
In truth, we may be miniscule in the awesome picture we find in Unetaneh Tokef, but our acts and our attitudes can enable us to play a part in it as well.