Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall perish by water and who by fire…
The Unetaneh Tokef – Rosh Hashanah’s central prayer – is truly terrifying and disturbing. It tells us that next year at this time, some of us will be gone via a series of dreadful possibilities: floods, fires, illnesses and the like. God issues this decree from high above, sitting on a throne of judgement. Our behavior determines our fate according to the biblical and rabbinic system of reward and punishment. Not only does the prayer arouse people’s fear of dying, it adds a layer of blame and shame, suggesting that our illnesses and losses are deserved and self-inflicted. For this reason, I used to much prefer the interpretive versions by Jack Riemer and Stanley Rabinowitz. They transform the prayer into a psychological reckoning. For example, rather than “Who shall live and who shall die,” Rabinowitz’s version offers “Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist.”
These interpretive efforts are much more in line with my theology. I do not believe in the kind of God who metes out our fate according to strict rules of justice. Indeed, I am not even certain the Bible believes in that kind of God. For example, the book of Job is a powerful challenge to that theology. As the story goes, Job is righteous and good, he loves and praises God even when everything is taken from him. However, Job suffers unfairly, not because he deserves it, but because God has made a bet with Ha-Satan, the Prosecuting Angel. Presumably, the rabbis included Job in the Bible because they realized that the world does not work like clockwork — and neither does God.
So it is no doubt surprising that I have come to value the prayer in its original. I appreciate it because it lends itself to multiple interpretations. If you believe in reward and punishment, you can read the prayer that way. If you prefer a psychological understanding of how our attitude affects our lives, that is an option. And the prayer gives expression to a reality we are forced to face, often regardless of our intentions and our behavior: the fact that some of us won’t be here next year or will be struck by heartache. Some will die of old age; some will become ill; some will lose homes to fires; some will lose loved ones to floods. These are life events over which we have limited control. And God is not necessarily responsible for them.
The question we must really ask is: How will we respond? The concluding verse of the Unetaneh Tokef suggests: U’t’shuvah, u’filah, u’tzedakah, ma-avirin et roa ha-gezera, “Repentance (return), prayer, and righteousness will mitigate the harshness of the decree.” A beautiful way to understand how this works is offered by Rabbi Helen Plotkin:
Teshuvah—repentence (sic), response, return—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.
Tefillah—prayer—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.
Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.
If we follow these practices, our lives will be richer and more rewarding, despite tragedies and setbacks. Wishing you all a shanah tovah u’metukah – a happy and sweet New Year.
Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA. She is also a member of the Reform movement of Judaism’s Commission on Social Action as well as on the Leadership Team of California’s Religious Action Center.
 Adapted, in David Teutsch, ed., Kol Haneshamah: Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, Elkins Park, PA: The Reconstructionist Press, 1999, p. 345,