Like Soldiers or Sheep: The Challenge of Unetaneh Tokef
Yom Kippur / Kol Nidre 5766
By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan
Summer is my time to find renewal and strength through the beauty and grandeur of nature. No matter what happens during the year if I can get out of the city for a little while during the summer, go for a hike or just enjoy the outdoors I know things will be OK the rest of the year. This summer, unfortunately, I never escaped the city to find that source of renewal that I so love. I did come across a movie, however, that had the same affect.
It was definitely the most powerful and spiritual movie of the year. For those who did not see The March of the Penguins – you missed a real treat. This film is a documentary about emperor penguins and how, despite tremendous obstacles, they manage to propagate and continue their species in the harshest environment on earth – in Antarctica.
This movie traces the lives of penguins during one reproductive season. Beginning in March as the Antarctic summer is coming to a close, we watch as the penguins begin the seventy mile journey to their breeding ground. Thousands of penguins miraculously come together each year to pick a mate, and then, remaining faithful to that mate, they hatch a chick and nurture it to independence despite the horrific conditions of the Antarctic winter.
The penguins are amazing creatures. Each parent goes for weeks without food as they take turns guarding the egg (and then the chick) while the other parent makes the long trek back to the sea to eat and then return. The penguins their offspring by sheltering it under their ample body fat as they carry the egg and then the chick on their feet to protect them from cold and ice. If one or the other parent meets an untimely end, the fragile offspring will not survive. It takes a whole family to raise a chick; in fact it takes an entire community - the penguins provide warmth and protection for each other throughout the cold winter months. But that’s a sermon unto itself. There’s much that we can learn from these proud creatures about cooperation and interdependence.
In the March of the Penguins we witness the awesome power of nature. If ever there was an argument to be made for intelligent design in the universe, it’s here. A story unfolds in this documentary more dramatic than anything we can invent. At the same time we are keenly aware of how cruel and unpredictable the universe can be. Imagine having to live through a Katrina every year of your life! There’s a delicate and unpredictable balance between order and chaos in this cycle so that the survival of a baby penguin appears to be pure chance.
The March of the Penguins is about much more than penguins. This movie is about you and me. It’s a story, plain and simple, about life and the nature of the universe. Life is filled with pain, suffering and uncertainty as well as triumph, dignity and bravery whether you’re an emperor penguin or a human being.
Watching The March I was struck by two things. First it’s hard to witness the grandeur of nature without believing that there’s a God in the universe. How else do you explain the mysteries and immutable order of nature? How do penguins find their way back to the same breeding ground every year? And how do they sense that this is an area in which they do not have to worry about a melting icecap? The truth is, even if we could answer these questions the answers would not minimize our sense of wonder. We can’t resist saying, Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai, “How manifold are Your works Adonai! You created all of them with wisdom.” A simple leaf, a grain of sand, or an emperor penguin can bear witness to the awesome presence of God in the universe.
At the same time we’re struck by the cruelty and uncaring nature of the universe. So where is God n this equation? In a brief moment a penguin stumbles and its egg touches the ice, freezes and cracks. We watch as parent penguins become victims of leopard seals after returning to the sea famished from weeks of hunger while nurturing their young. And after being cared for by their parents all winter, helpless young chicks are attacked by scavenger birds.
In the March of the Penguins life and death are impersonal, uncaring and unpredictable. There’s no rhyme or reason for what happens to these creatures. Is that any different from our lives?
More than anything we want to believe that there is some logic and order in the universe, in our lives. We want to believe that we live in a universe with a caring and fair God who rewards good and punishes evil. Yet what makes us think that our universe is any different from that of the penguins? Or that God cares about us more than God cares about other creatures?
Unlike the emperor penguins, we are self-aware. We ask questions about the meaning of life and suffering. We want to figure it all out. We feel pain when we realize that sometimes life doesn’t make sense or have some transcendent order to it. We confront illnesses, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. They don’t choose who they strike. Things just happen. But we were born with an inherent sense of justice. We want to know - where is that fairness in the universe?
We struggle with these questions each year as we approach the High Holy Days. The powerful words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer capture the uncertainty that we bring with us to synagogue during this season. Another year has passed with all its trials and tribulations. And now judgment looms over us again. The Machzor says, “Who shall live and who shall die?” Does God pass judgment?
The images in the Unetaneh Tokef are powerful and devastating. They are also fatalistic. This is a season when Gods’ dominion reigns supreme, when every creature passes before God in judgment Kivanei maron. In our Machzor this expression is translated “as a flock of sheep.” Some scholars have suggested that originally the word was not kivnei maron but kivnumeron, which means “like legions of soldiers.” So which are we – Are we frail sheep subject to the whims of nature or as powerful soldiers going off to battle fully prepared to fight but also aware that there are no guarantees on the battlefield Either way life is uncertain, unpredictable.
We can’t explain why those dear to us suffer from illness and misfortune. We know that no one is innocent. The Machzor says that God opens the Book of Judgment during the Days of Awe and writes a decree in it for each of us – who shall live and who shall die. But where is God’s judgment? And how do we respond to it? Do we respond as sheep or as soldiers? Animals respond to tragedy with instinct – they just go on living. We respond by making choices. But it is hard to make choices if you loose faith in life, if you don’t believe that there is some order to the universe.
The fatalism in the first half of the Unetaneh Tokef gives way to hope. We conclude “Repentance, Prayer and Righteous acts – Ma’avirin et roah hagezerah. How do we translate these words? In some Machzorim they are translated as “Repentance Prayer and Righteous acts avert the evil decree.” But we don’t believe that we can change the nature of the universe any more than we can change the whether or stop and earthquake.
We can choose how we respond to the universe. Our actions make a difference. In our Machzor the translation is different: “Repentance, Prayer, and Righteous acts can annul the severity of the decree.” This suggests that while we can’t avert ‘the decree’ but we can change our reaction to it by performing deeds that give meaning to our lives. Despite sorrow, despite darkness, we can transcend the cruelty of the world by performing good deeds, by transforming ourselves, by opening our hearts to God’s presence.
As a rabbi I’m confronted by the questions Unetaneh Tokef raises every day. There is suffering all around us: I see families in crisis; I talk with people who are dealing with overwhelming illnesses; and I try to comfort others who have been shattered by tragedy and loss. “Why?” these people ask. “Why was my child taken from me? Why am I suffering from this illness? Why did my spouse pass away at a time when I most need her/him? Rabbi, I lived a good life, a decent life – why am I being robbed of my dignity and independence now that I’ve reached my so called golden years?
As an eleven year old I learned the harsh truth. Bad things just happen. Why should an eleven year old boy be robbed of his father? There was no answer to this question but somehow I instinctively knew that belief in God had to be more than just wishful thinking. Like many people, I came to my faith not out of blessing but out of sorrow. I understood the 23rd Psalm even before I knew it – “Though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” It’s not when everything is Ok that we encounter God but in moments of darkness that we begin to understand that we need God and that God needs us.
I envy the penguins. They never question suffering. They instinctively understand that it is part of the universe. It’s an illusion to believe that life can be lived without suffering. More than a theological statement the Unetaneh Tokef is an existential statement about life. The year before us is going to pass and there’s no question that things will happen. There will be illness. There will be more hurricanes. There will be fires. There will be sadness. This is not a threat but a simple fact. We can learn from the penguins. They don’t suffer – they deal with life as it’s presented to them. But we human beings make life so much harder for ourselves because we try to find logic where it simply doesn’t exist.
So where is God, then?
God is present in both the horror and grandeur of life. Just as God is present in life and goodness we can not ignore the fact that God is present in moments of darkness as well. We have Berachot, blessing, for every occasion – good and evil. When we hear good news we say: “Praised are you Adonai Our God, who is good and does good.” In moments of sorrow we also recite a berachah. We say, “Praised are you Adonai Our God, who is a true judge.”
The Unetaneh Tokef offers a response to human suffering: God is present not in what happens but in what we do: God is present in Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah. They will not change the universe but they have the power to transform us, to change us. God is present when we perform these acts.
First, there is Teshuvah, repentance or return. The word teshuvah has another meaning. It is also an “answer.” We constantly have a choice in how we respond, how we answer life. We can accept life as a victim and bemoan our fate, or we can respond to life’s challenges and choose to live. We can turn to God as a source of help and strength or we can blame God for life’s inevitable realities.
The second response to human suffering is Tefillah, prayer. When we read the Torah we recite a mi sheberakh for those in need of healing. There are people who have been on that list for years and others who despite our heartfelt prayers passed away any way. So why bother saying this prayer? I don’t believe that this prayer can change our destiny but I do believe that it can change us. It forces us to look inward, to count our resources and to honestly assess what we can change and what is beyond our control. And prayer awakens us to the needs of others. Who’s to say that the purpose of the mi sheberach isn’t to remind us to pay that person a visit and comfort them? Prayer can also teach us some many things: it can teach us to forgive and it can challenge us to defy the suffering in the world.
Consider a woman named Dola Richards. She’s one of the thousands of Katrina victims whose home was destroyed five weeks ago. In recent years Dola has lost a 44 year old son to a heart attack and two grandchildren in separate accidents. Her husband is battling cancer. Dola has every reason to give up. Yet she finds strength in prayer. When asked about how she manages Dola responded, “Without religion I’d be lost. It gets us through the day.”
Prayer is not wishful thinking. I’m suspect that Dola knows that prayer won’t change the physical facts of her life. And yet she prays because it gives her strength, it gives her hope, it gives her a sense of meaning. Every evening and morning in our own synagogue there are people who pray. Some of them come to say Kaddish. They have lost loved ones in the last year. Others are struggling with illness. They know that prayer can’t change the physical nature of the universe. But it gives them the strength to carry on, to live, to continue another day. When they walk into the synagogue they know that they’re not alone – that there are people here who care about them. Together we find healing and wholeness. When we join hands and hearts, we find God.
Finally there’s Tzedakah –righteous acts. When we perform acts of tzedakah we become Gods hands and feet, doing what needs to be done in the world, fixing that which is broken, and comforting the hearts of those who feel despair.
So to the question, where is God, I’d answer: God is present in the world. Whenever people choose to answer sorrow with hope God is present. Whenever people come together to pray and to comfort one another, God is present. Whenever we choose to join hands and help a stranger, God is present. We are not sheep, subject to the forces of the universe. We are soldiers confronting a dangerous world, doing our best to establish dignity and hope even when it’s lost. The Unetaneh Tokef challenges us to live a life of meaning – not to wait for God but to manifest God in the universe through our actions.
In the end God is present in the sorrow and the joy, in the darkness and light. There is a larger order in the universe of which we are only a small part. We need to rethink what we realistically expect of God. We can’t expect to live life and not be a part of life and all its possibilities. We are more than instinctual creatures – we can choose how we respond to this uncertain world.
So I love those penguins but I’m glad that I’m not one of them. My humanity does not mean that I have more privileges than other creatures but it does mean that I have more opportunities and choices. It means that no matter what happens to me, life is still in my hands. Unlike other creatures, I have the potential to give my life and my death meaning. I’m not a sheep passively being counted and judged. I’m a soldier in the service of God.
Yom Kippur is an encounter with mortality. We read of
the scapegoat that is sent off to die in wilderness. We tell the story
of the Asarah harugay malchut, the ten sages whose lives were martyred
in the name of their faith. We recite Yizkor and remember our loved ones.
Death is inevitable. And yet we celebrate life.
Today, on Yom Kippur, we face our own mortality valiantly. The question is not who shall live but how shall we live. God has given us the ability to find meaning and to create meaning in life no matter what hand it deals to us...
That is the real essence of faith.
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