U’Netaneh Tokef: Opening our Hearts and Creating Hope

Pnina Omer Director, Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center for Agunot

For many months now we have been living with a sense of powerlessness in the face of a global pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 throughout the world has badly shaken humanity’s sense of confidence and generated an ongoing feeling of uncertainty. Many people are pouring out their hearts in prayers for health and livelihood. Our hearts are breaking at the harsh pictures and testimonies reaching us from all over the world.

Alongside the awful fear for our lives and those of our loved ones, we are experiencing a severe economic crisis. We are encountering families among people we know who have been abruptly pitched into poverty. People who were on the giving side suddenly find themselves needing help. Those who were making a dignified living now find themselves struggling to put food on the table.

This harsh reality has opened people’s hearts; everywhere we find touching evidence of collective responsibility, of people who go without to help others. Tzedakah and chesed have become commonplace.

COVID-19 has turned us all inward. This pandemic without boundaries does not distinguish between people, reminding us that we are all created in God’s image. Public life has diminished as the routines we were accustomed to have changed dramatically. The loss of community life, alongside the undermining of established orders, has forced us all to reassess the way we live.

Reality has forced us to isolate and cope. We have discovered inner strengths, re-invented our communities, established backyard minyanim, and held conferences and work meetings over Zoom.

Yet the crisis cannot be ignored. The entire world is undergoing a process of soul-searching, examination, and re-organization in all spheres of life. Everyone, from countries to individuals, is questioning the future. We are asking ourselves where we have gone wrong, what we can retain, and what we must improve. We are all searching for a compass to guide us forward. In the Jewish world, these processes of searching are called teshuvah.

The High Holy Days are approaching, echoing within them liturgies containing the magical words, “Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah,” which enable every person to overturn harsh decrees. These days were intended for us to halt the hectic pace of life and look inwards at our lives and actions. This reflection, which is usually dictated by the Hebrew calendar, was generated on its own this past year, as we spontaneously filled the world with teshuvah, prayers, and good deeds.

A retrospective view of recent months shows that the world has been in the High Holy Day mode for several long months. The question that we ask each year during the prayer of U’Netaneh Tokef, which once seemed to belong to an ancient world, has become our daily reality: “Who by plague?”

As we have seen, alongside the struggle for survival, humanity as a whole has experienced processes that contain elements of seeking, amendment, and atonement. The world has been filled with prayers that burst forth from the very core of our soul. People of all nations and creeds have experienced acts of charity stemming from the very root of human morality.

The terrible days of COVID-19 have highlighted the fragility of life and of human helplessness. Verses upon verses from U’Netaneh Tokef pass before my eyes as the verdict hangs over humanity’s head, and all creatures pass before Him. What are our lives worth, and who are we? Like a passing shadow, like a breeze that passes, like a fleeting dream.

Our hearts weep for all the dreams dashed by the global crisis, leaving behind people who are like broken shards, like dry grass, or like a withered flower, who see themselves as dust and ashes.

How do we help raise up so many good people who have sunk into despair this past year? This question reminds me of the famous words of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, who would say to his pupils: “Everyone must have two pockets… one with the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)… and the other with the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27).”

The wisdom, added Rabbi Simcha, was to know which pocket to draw from at any given moment. This is the relevant truth that balances our lives in this world, now more than ever.

I fear that at this time many people are wandering about with a note reading ‘I am but dust and ashes’ in both pockets. They cannot experience the world as though it was created just for them and they live in great despair, without faith or hope.

The holidays of Tishrei toss us between the heights of spirituality and the depths of powerlessness. The two notes in our pockets are what enable us to move between these two extremes.

This year, we have an extraordinary duty to determine who among our friends are holding two identical notes reading ‘I am but dust and ashes’. As a wise person once suggested in similar circumstances, when we stand by a source of water during tashlich and empty our pockets to open our heart, do teshuvah and rid ourselves of wrongdoing, let us make sure our friends who are in despair empty their pockets of one of the double notes, taking instead a note that promises that the world was created for them.

Every person deserves to hold some hope in their pocket for the coming year — to rest, to be at peace, to be serene, to be wealthy, and to be exalted.


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