Days of Awe, Uncertainty, and Good Deeds

Posted on Sep 18, 2017

For many Jews in North America this year, the awe felt during the Days of Awe contains a greater measure of fear and trepidation than usual. “Who will perish by fire, and who by water . . . who by earthquake and who by plague . . . who will be at peace and who will be troubled?” The High Holiday liturgy reminds us, if reminder is needed in 2017, that uncertainty is our lot as human beings. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have had to make fateful calculations in the past few days or weeks about whether it was better to flee from the approaching hurricane or find local shelter. Tales abound of Floridians from the East Coast fleeing west to escape the brunt of the storm, only to travel farther or turn back when the forecast changed. Their uncertainty in the face of disaster echoed that of the 800,000 Americans whose future has been unsettled by the recently announced end to the DACA program. “Who will be impoverished, and who enriched; who will be brought low, and who raised up? But repentance, prayer, and good deeds have the power to avert the evil of the decree.”

I’ve always been jarred by that conclusion to the U-netaneh Tokef prayer—and profoundly grateful for it. Verse after verse sets the ups and downs of fate squarely at the center of consciousness. The litany seems meant to convince us that there is nothing we can do to avert a future totally out of our control. But then we are jolted back to awareness and responsibility. There is a lot we can do to mitigate and avert the “decree” of suffering. Repentance, prayer, and good deeds were all in evidence during these weeks of fire and flood: in the rescue efforts of “first responders”; in the heroism of neighbors rushing to each other’s assistance; in the precautions that saved many thousands of lives; in quiet prayers uttered from the relative safety of sealed rooms or publicly in communal shelters; and—no less evident to some of us,  but to others still a point of controversy—in steps taken or planned to minimize the global warming that has arguably made this summer’s heat waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, and forest fires more severe than they would otherwise have been.  

JTS has long enabled Jews to experience the meaning and community that are among the greatest gifts of Judaism and are so much a part of the High Holidays. In keeping with the  tradition of “repentance, prayer, and good deeds,” we train leaders who are skilled at offering comfort to those in need of it as well as in guiding individuals and communities to a higher level of spirituality, learning, observance, and social activism. So much of Jewish liturgy is framed in the plural, even as it addresses each of us in the depths of our singularity. Jewish institutions, at their best, are likewise places where individual selves find fulfillment through solidarity and community—and where diversity consistently makes us stronger. Families gathered around the table at the holidays know the joy of hearing the same jokes yet again—and even the same arguments; Jews in synagogue, chanting melodies and words passed down from the ancestors, can taste the satisfaction of finding new meaning in their tradition, and new ways to act on the command to make the world more just and more compassionate.

The High Holiday liturgy is sober enough to measure up to the gravity and uncertainty of life as we know it—thereby enabling us to find genuine comfort and assurance in the hope that Judaism holds out for us and the world. May the year be good and sweet for all.