by Rabbi Sandra Cohen
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן – B’rosh hashanah yicatevu u’v’yom tzum kippur y’chamtenu
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur, it is sealed. . .
This piyyut (liturgical poetry), the Un’taneh Tokef, is perhaps the most famous of all the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im/Days of Awe. It tells of how our fates for the coming year will be written in the Book of Life. That book, we are told, is opened during the High Holy Days, and we read it together with G-d.
What is written? Our lives. We look back at pages we have embossed with our deeds and misdeeds, active and passive. And we ask G-d to help us write a better page next year. For G-d to help us cope with all the hardships and blessings that come our way: flood, famine, plague, restlessness. To write us for life, for a good life.
But. . .
What if one does not really wish to be written for life. Those of us struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic pain and so many other challenges may not want to keep living. Many of us look at this poem and see ourselves as the one who is wandering and not at peace, as the one who is pursued and tormented. How long, we ask the Holy One, will I be sentenced to pain and not peace? Mercy, we explain to G-d, would be allowing us to die.
Those feelings, either the hope that our lives will be better if G-d would just help out or the despair that one has been forgotten, relegated to the Divine wasteland, are very real and very painful. Sitting among other worshipers at shul (or following along at home with streaming!), one might feel terribly alone — and even angry. Why do others seem to look back at the year just passed and feel grateful? Why does my family member or neighbor have such faith in a good, sweet new year? Why am I alone in my despair?
It is a difficult thing — to struggle to wish for life, to put aside one’s anguish and find a glimmer of hope.
The Un’taneh Tokef offers us strategies, if you will, ways of coping with the harshness of life. וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה. Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah/return (repentance), prayer and charity can help us avert the harshness of the decree. They will not be magic; every life has hard parts. Rather, we seek to manage our responses to the cards we are dealt: We cannot control the hand, but we can choose how to play our cards. Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, the piyyut tells us, can help us cope with challenges; they can transform who we are, both in our deeds and our spirit.
How do we take these words from the Machzor and turn them into realistic, doable actions?
First comes teshuvah. The root of this word for repentance means to return. Return to what? For those hurting, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, to return is to first ground ourselves in ourselves. Who are we? What are our gifts, our blessings? What are our struggles and hurt? What do we do well, and what would we like to do differently?
This self-analysis, if you will, works only if you can see yourself with acceptance, not harsh critique and self-hatred. No one is perfect. But as we look over the past year and into the next, we can enumerate our challenges (plague, depression, pain, fatigue, anger) gently and then, with love, think about how to cope with those issues. Change happens slowly: Setting one or two small, concrete goals to work on in the coming year is less overwhelming than trying to be perfect in all we do. We need to accept ourselves before returning to G-d.
And returning to G-d is what tefillah/prayer is all about. Prayer is not a divine vending machine, wherein I insert my needs and wishes, and out comes the response; rather, it is about a personal discussion between an individual and G-d. The words on the page of the Machzor are helpful; they are guides to the sorts of topics and details one might be thinking about during the Days of Awe. But . . . they are just that: examples, benchmarks, models of prayer. The Machzor uses the traditional words on the page in front us as a way into our hearts.
What do you want to say to G-d? Are you angry? In despair? Lonely? Tell G-d. Yell at G-d. Not because G-d will immediately fix the pain at hand, but because prayer, traditional and personal, are ways of connecting to the Divine. Pretending all is well when, in fact, all is not well, destroys relationships. Honesty is the place to start. G-d can take it!
The other blessing from prayer is the communal aspect. We sing together and recite the traditional words. Look around and remember: Many people suffer, and we cannot see it. We are not alone in our pain, although we may feel alone and abandoned. Praying with others is a way of being part of a community — of being less alone. Just as no one person has committed all the sins we enumerate on Yom Kippur, none of us will get through the next year without some difficulties. Perhaps we can forge connections with others in our synagogues through praying together. We are, in fact, not alone.
Finally, we turn to tzedakah — charity. The root of the word here – צדק – is righteousness. On the High Holy Days, we start with ourselves (repentance/return) and then move on to our relationship with the Holy One (prayer). Eventually, we arrive at the interpersonal connections that can turn our hardships into blessings: doing what is right. Charity seems to connote simply giving money, whether to the beggar on the street corner, to your synagogue or to national programs for the hungry. And this is, indeed, part of tzedakah. Is it just that I have more while others struggle to feed their children? Of course, Judaism commands us to give, to balance out the huge monetary distinctions in our society.
But pursuing justice goes beyond that. It means creating relationships among people, to make deliberate choices in building a better world. Tzedakah reminds us we are not alone. We all have needs that need healing and help, and we all have gifts (not just money) to share with others. Together, we can build a better society.
Ultimately, the piyyut tells us, G-d does not wish ill on any of us. “For You do not desire the death of the condemned; rather, that they turn from their path and live. You wait for them until the day of their death, and if they repent, You receive them immediately.
G-d knows how fragile we are, how often we take the easy way out, how much help we need to live good lives. It is reassuring to know all we need do is to turn back to G-d, and G-d will forgive us and let us start again.
Reaching into the dark void to find G-d is scary. Looking at ourselves can be troubling. Being part of a community seeking justice for all is a heavy commitment.
And yet, if we are willing to take the chance during this holiday season that these deeds might, in fact, help transform the lives we are living, we might surprise ourselves. Will our depression disappear like magic? No. But our tradition reminds us these are the basic coping mechanisms for a good life. To accept ourselves and strive to do better, to stretch our souls toward the Divine and to connect with one another: This is the way toward a life worth living.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen works in mental health outreach in religious communities across North America and teaches rabbinic texts in a variety of contexts from her home in Denver. She can be found at www.rabbisandracohen.org.