On Rosh Hashanah, we read The Unetaneh Tokef - a poem that forces us to confront our mortality. On Erev Yom Kippur we also recite a poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine that begins with the words: Birth is a Beginning. And death a destination. And life is a Journey. So, essentially, these 10 holy days of Awe are bookended with a reminder that we all will die.
The Unetaneh Tokef tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, it is written– preordained - as to whom God will place in the ‘live’ column, and who will be placed in the ‘die’ column. In fact, the words, Unetaneh Tokef are often translated into ‘Let Us Cede Power.’ Let us give in. Yet at the end of the poem, after listing many ways we might “give in to a preordained death” we are told that with T’shuvah, T’fillah, and Tzadaka, we might ‘temper the severity of god’s decree.’ Does this mean we can escape fate?...that there’s a loophole to get out of the “die” column and into the “live” column?
So which is it? Give in, or make a deal
Let’s start with T’shuvah – repent, return. We are asked to return. I return to last year at this time, when I sat in this space, reading these words, having just learned that I had breast cancer, along with a dangerous inherited gene mutation. The words “who shall live and who shall die,” suddenly moved from an abstraction to a painfully relevant idea. But who in this room would “give in,” sit back and say, “my fate is sealed?” You better believe that I used all my resources – as much as was within my power - so that I might remain in the ‘live’ column. Like control freaks on a mission, David and I researched genetics, radiation, chemotherapy and alternative treatments. We met with 9 surgeons in 5 hospitals, numerous oncologists, and several breast cancer survivors. I wanted choice, and I needed to write my own story. A year later, my surgeon likes to say I “won,” not so much because of my “choices,” but mostly because of my super early diagnosis that arose from a moment of happenstance. I fortuitously noticed something that even a mammogram would have missed. Was that luck? Randomness? Destiny? I will never know. Why am I healthy when others I know, others we ALL know, who fought just as hard and even harder, have died? Certainly, I didn’t “deserve” to live and they didn’t “deserve” to die.
But with the humility of not knowing, I have become eternally grateful. I RETURN to the Unetanneh Tokef this year with gratitude, gratitude that may help me, some day – hopefully many, many years from now - accept the inevitable. That acceptance won’t change fate, but it just might “TEMPER the severity of God’s decree.”