This prayer we are about to recite is one of the most challenging in our liturgy. Do we truly mean the words as they are written? Do we take these words to mean that it is at this moment that God will decide who shall live and who shall die?
If God literally decides the fate of our lives at this time, then it can be very hard to be a believer. Therefore, finding the meaning, grasping the power of these words and admitting the difficulty in not only reciting it but understanding it.
This is a prayer in which our fate is NOT put into God’s hands, but rather into our own. What part of the enterprise of life is ours and which is God’s? The unetanetokef is a theological and human responsibility discussion that begins at the head of this year and can continue throughout the entire year.
Who by earthquake? Judith Sklar argues that earthquakes are a natural event but what makes them a disaster is because of the buildings humans have built and where – that we choose to build where we know these events take place. Consider two earthquake events, Haiti and Chile. In Chile, where building codes are stronger, sadly 521 people died. However, in Haiti, one month earlier, 600 times more people died because there were no building codes. Their death was not God’s doing, it was a human injustice.
Who by hunger, who by famine? Today, 1/3 of the world population is well fed, 1/3 the world population is underfed, and 1/3 of the world population is starving. What kind of religious responsibility do we need to show? What does this mean? Famine is not in God’s hand. This is in our hands to make the decision to end hunger and feed people. It is in our hands to make sure that another 4 million people will not die from hunger this year.
Who by water: A Tsunami. This can’t be prevented, but it can be predicted. We have the technology to predict that there is going to be a tsunami and with those warning systems in place, hundreds, even thousands of lives could be saved. Unfortunately, the technology was not accessible to those in the Indian Ocean.
Who by plague: Cancer, it touches all of our families. We hear stories of those who are not diagnosed early enough either by choice because they don’t go to the doctor for regular check ups, or those who do not have insurance, so cannot afford to see a doctor. Rabbi Rick Jacobs shares a story of a woman from his previous community who, after being laid off did not have health insurance. She put off going to the doctor for what she thought was something minor, but then, when she finally did go in, it was too late. Cancer that could have been detected and treated early on had progressed too far. It would have cost her less if she had been able to go in early than the cost of the late stage treatment that would have cost her 80,000. Her husband only made 16,000 a year. She died recently.
Who by sword: Gun violence. 30,000 people, including children will die from gun violence.
Who by beast, who by thirst? All of these questions. Where is God in all of this?
Rabbi Howard Schulweiss said, “Not everything that happens in the world is a Divine Judgement.” Who shall live and who shall die, these are responsibilities that belong to each of us, they are responsibilities to not be silent.
Acts of God can be all around us. They can be in the deeds that we can perform and the actions we take to care for all people. Who shall live and who shall die is up to us. So let us read this prayer not putting the responsibility on God or the posing the questions to God, let us read this unetanetokef in a way that puts the responsibility on us.