The High Holy Days bring new challenges to each of us every year. As we explore the depths of our souls, we expose positives and negatives, successes and missed opportunities, hope and despair. Yes, our tradition says that it is God who examines each of us. In Unetane Tokef —the central prayer of the Yamim Noraim—we speak of God’s awesome power: All knowing “Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness;” that “the great shofar will sound (for us), and yet a still small voice will be heard;” and that “On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed,” how each of us is assigned our fate for the coming year: who will live and who will die, etc.
Throughout the centuries, the words of Unetane Tokef were taken much more seriously than many do today. Within that prayer is the true awe of the Days of Awe. Perhaps we should revisit those words in a different light this year.
The oft-misused word “awesome” has real meaning for us on Yom Kippur. And in the words we say during each Amidah, “M’chalkel Chayim b’chesed” (You sustain the living with lovingkindness), God’s power over all natural law is revealed. God is truly the “Master of life and death, the source of redemption.”
The prayer, Unetane Tokef, says even more. Its final words are “But T’shuvah, T’fillah, and Ts’dakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny” (Machzor Lev Shalom; older machzorim say “can avert the evil decree”).
What does that really mean? It means that God allows us to influence our own fate. We can choose to return (t’shuvah), we can talk with God through prayer t’fillah) and through our own actions (ts’dakah). We have the power to change ourselves, our fate and the world itself.
As we attempt to transcend our “selves” and enter new places of our hearts during Yom Kippur, let us take a new look at our own lives and establish new pathways for our future.
G’mar Chatima Tovah.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)