Unesaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom… (“Let us validate and acknowledge the holiness of the day…the great shofar is sounded, the still voice is heard") begins what is probably the most powerful and moving piyut (liturgical poem) of the entire High Holy Day service. But it is the closing words of this piyut that, in my opinion, give us strength and optimism as we stand in judgment on Yom HaDin.
According to the halachic work Or Zarua (“Light is sown") written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna in the 13th century, Unesaneh Tokef was composed by a Rav Amnon of Mainz, Germany, in the eleventh century. The Bishop of that city insisted that his good friend the Rabbi convert to Christianity. Rav Amnon asked for and received three days to decide. Rav Amnon suffered from a deep depression, despair and self-doubt for having intimated that he would entertain the idea of converting. When Rav Amnon failed to appear at the appointed time, the Bishop had him brought and had his hands and feet amputated. A few days later the dying Rav Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue. As the Congregation reached the Rosh Hashana Kedusha, Rav Amnon was inspired to create and chant the poignant piyut before dying. According to the legend, a few nights later Rav Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam, taught him this moving hymn and asked him to communicate it to world Jewry for inclusion in the liturgy.*
The poem is replete with frightening imagery of the life(or death) that may await us in the coming year. Unesaneh Tokef is designed not so much to terrify but to shake us out of our complacency and put us in a mindset of self-examination. We remind ourselves of the many ways in which our life may end and focus on the ways to cope with the inevitability of death. We recognize our vulnerability and search for the behavior that will give our lives meaning and purpose.
The climactic phrase Ut’shuva, U’tfillah U’tzedaka Ma’averen Es Roa Hagezayra is conventionally translated into English as follows: "But repentance, prayer and charity cancel the stern decree."**. But can one's Fate be reversed once it has already been decided? An analysis of the words themselves with their multitude of, and sometimes contradictory, meanings may provide a measure of understanding:
T’shuva, the keynote theme, means repenting/returning. We are called upon to…
o Examine our lives and our behavior
o Verbalize our sins
o Pledge to not repeat our past unsavory behavior
o Commit ourselves to investigate and then return to our essential core goodness
The mechanism of T’shuva is transformational: by our changed behavior we regenerate and we become new individuals. Like the snake that sheds its skin and gains an almost-new identity, the person who has done t’shuva sheds his old self and is spared from the punishment that was to be inflicted on the old self that no longer exists.
T’fila means prayer. It is an activity that calls upon us to reach outside ourselves; to acknowledge that we are part of a universe, rather than its center. Egocentricity, either conscious or unconscious, can be a source of grandiosity and iniquity. The experience of reaching outside ourselves to praise, to thank, to confess and to plea acknowledges the existence, and the importance, of God Who "listens," Who pays attention, and Who cares. It is good to be loved and feel cared about. T’filah is the step in the transformational process that creates the interface between the human and the Divine.
Tzedaka is usually associated with Charity — the giving of money to the needy. However, whenever the word appears in the Torah, it never has a monetary connotation. It is better understood as the pursuit of things like…
It is a description of how we perceive God’s interaction with us and, more importantly, a formula for how we are to interact with our fellow humans. Utilizing this Biblical definition, Tzedaka becomes the defining character trait(s) in our communal lives. It is the culminating transformational step that Rav Amnon considered to be so critical, of which the giving charity is but one part.
The words Ma’averen Es Roa Ha’gezayra are enigmatic and complicated. Ma’aveeren has a multiplicity of meanings including…
Ironically, the root also relates to sin (avera). The word captures the oft-repeated image of our comparison to sheep passing in front of a shepherd. It can also mean to stroke gently.
The root also relates to positive images of friendship and of pastoral scenes. Roa can also mean crush or break.
Hagezayra refers to the Divine decree, though it also has a variety of other meanings, including a precipice, a narrow place and to cut off.
Unesaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom describes how…
Humanity passes before God like a flock before the shepherd
Divine decisions on Life and Death are made-- who will live and who will die
Divine decisions regarding the living are made-- who will wander, who will suffer, who will be enriched
It is following this idea about the living that Rav Amnon pronounces “U’tshuva, U’tfillah U’tzedaka Maaveren Es Roa Hagezayra”. He does not say that the Divine Decree itself can be changed; only that “Roa Hagezayra” can be influenced.
My interpretation is that Rav Amnon wants the living to know that in addition to Life itself that is being granted there are mechanisms to soften (maaver) the crushing blow (roa) of what life sometimes holds in store for us (hagezayra). In the real world we witness tragedy that does not get reversed or changed by any of our actions. Evil exists in the world but we have the ability to transcend the evil and prevent it from enduring. The actions that change us and help us cope are…
T’shuva --internal change
T'fila-- improving our relationship with God by reaching out to Him
Tzedaka -developing integrity in our inter-personal behavior and speech: being sincere, honest, empathic, caring and straightforward
We pray for Life. If granted, we are given the additional opportunity to change for the better at any time in order to live our life to the fullest. Carpe Diem: Let us seize the day!
Jonathan Elkoubi offers another approach. The “vav” prefix –OOt’shuva, OOt’fila, and OOtzedaka -- can be translated as “and” meaning one needs to do all three. But it can also mean “or”, requiring that only one of the three be done. One may achieve change by doing either T’shuva or T’fila or Tzedaka, depending on one’s life situation.
T’shuva is necessary for the vast majority of us who have made mistakes and are capable of not only identifying our behavior but also have the ability to correct. In a sense we are like the chacham in the Haggadah, in that we have the wisdom to realize and then do the required:
T’fila is for those people who (like the tam among the Four Sons in the Hagaddah) lack the ability to see any wrongdoing. For them, prayer becomes the prime vehicle for achieving forgiveness and change.
Tzedaka is for those who know they are wrongdoers (like the rasha) but want, nonetheless, to achieve some degree of redemption (out of guilt perhaps) without being hypocritical. The professional assassin/burglar/mugger/cheater/charlatan may not have the capacity to honestly and sincerely do T’shuva and T'fila. The most appropriate behavior for him is to change his ways, to mend fences with fellow man and with Society.
Although "Maaveren" is plural, "Roa Hagezayra" is in the singular suggesting, perhaps, that doing the one form of change that best suits one’s personality is enough to modify the Gezayra.
Change is difficult. But each of us can approach the awe-inspiring High Holy Days optimistically, confident of our ability to break through our shell, reach upward and achieve Regeneration.
Ktiva Vachatima Tova!
Rabbi H.L. Berenholz
*Scholars have discussed the authenticity and authorship of the story. Some suggest that the text antedates the time in which Rav Amnon was believed to have lived. Indeed, a number of versions of the piyut were found in the Cairo Geniza. Their language, structure and design suggest that the original source is in the Middle East, not Germany. One opinion is that this piyut was written either by an author of sacred poems named Yanai who lived in Israel during the Byzantine Era or by his student Elazar Hakalir.