17 September 2010
9 Tishrei 5771
Yesterday morning in my sicha (morning discussion group), we learned and discussed one of the most powerful and well-known piyyutim (poems) of the High Holiday liturgy and one of our more theologically challenging Jewish texts. Not surprisingly, many of the students in my sicha were troubled by this piyyut’s portrayal of God and God’s relationship with humanity.
Un’taneh Tokef – “And let us acknowledge the power (of this day’s holiness)” is probably best known by the musical refrain that comes in the middle of the piyyut: “B’Rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, u’v’Yom Tzom Kippur Yeichateimun – On Rosh Hashanah they will be written down, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed.” This refrain repeats itself amidst a series of haunting phrases asking how people will experience their presumably already predetermined fate to suffer: “Who will live and who will die . . . Who by fire and who by water . . .?” Immediately following the “who’s,” the piyyut changes tone and informs us that “U’teshuva u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezerah – And/But repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship of the decree pass.”
In true Gann fashion, the students engaged with this complex traditional text with what I call critical-openness—not afraid to challenge the text and each other and still open to finding new ways of understanding that resonate intellectually and spiritually with their lives and their vision of Judaism, Disturbed by the piyyut’s description of God as remembering (and recording) everything that has been forgotten (i.e. all of our sins and failings), one student compared this portrayal of God to Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. “This doesn’t seem Jewish to me,” she said. Another student respectfully disagreed. “To me, this is a profoundly Jewish message,” he suggested, referring to the second half of the piyyut’s description of God as “slow to anger and quick to forgive.” “In spite of the fact that God knows every detail of our imperfection,” the student continued, “God still wants us to change and improve and is eager to give us another chance.”
Another student expressed discontent with the piyyut’s claim that, if we repent, pray, and do acts of righteousness (“u’teshuva, u’tefillah, u’tzekaha), then we will be saved. He critiqued, “It feels like we are being threatened into being good, and that is not what should motivate us.” Yet again, in the spirit of makhloket (principled debate), another student offered a different interpretation. “To me, this is not threatening, but rather empowering. Despite the consequences we might deserve, we have the power to change ourselves, to influence God, and to determine our own future.”
Toward the end of our sicha, the conversation turned toward the seemingly paradoxical portrayal of God as both truth- and justice-pursuing and compassionate. One of the students suggested that, perhaps, this is an image of God as a perfect parent, for the art of parenting requires a delicate balance between discipline, boundaries, and consequences on the one hand, and patience and forgiveness on the other. I was amazed that a high school boy showed such empathy toward parents and such a nuanced understanding of what it means to be a parent. And, somehow, when this student pointed out a vision of “perfect parenting”, I became profoundly aware of just how imperfect most of us are as parents, teachers, or Head of School, for that matter. I even felt a surge of compassion toward God, for it is overwhelming enough to bear the responsibility of raising and educating our own children and students, let alone all of humanity.
As we prepare for Yom Kippur, my sicha reminded me that finding the balance between din (judgment/justice/truth) and rachamim (mercy/compassion/forgiveness) is an art, not a science. May we all strive to find this balance, however imperfect it may be, with our children, with each other, and with ourselves.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Marc Baker