The Jewish prayer Unetanneh Tokef includes the following:“On Rosh Hashanah [we] will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur [we] will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
As a psychologist, I know the importance of denial to manage overwhelming, threatening, or painful situations. Denial and avoidance help us to put our feelings in a box so that we can get up in the morning, focus, and continue with our lives. But as Jews around the world stand in prayer on Yom Kippur, we are asked to challenge our natural human coping strategy and confront the unforeseen pain and hardship of the year ahead.
A glance at the news seemingly confirms that the words of the above prayer are not far off. Overwhelming reports of war, natural disasters, violence, poverty and the pandemic flood headlines and feed on a very real feeling that the world is scary, unfriendly and out of control.
Why aren’t we afforded the chance to deny on Yom Kippur and protect our human psyche from the pain of the uncontrolled? While I am not an expert on liturgy, I do have some thoughts on the importance of reflection and introspection—especially in today’s troubling world.
Judaism teaches that we are not responsible solely for ourselves. Each of us is responsible for the welfare and wellbeing of each other. While we acknowledge that none of us can solve a local, national or global problem by ourselves, we do have the power to positively contribute to a better world around us.
The frightening images of Unetanneh Tokef lead to an important, reassuring conclusion: “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree.” Those words are intended to provide us with a sense of power—though limited—and guide our feelings and actions into the year ahead.
Repentance. Understand the causes of conflict in yourself, in your home, in your community and in the greater world. Take the time to look inward into your own challenges and then outward towards the challenges others face.
Prayer. Reflect on areas that can be improved on and where your energy can benefit. Do not feel overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges. No one of us can solve an interpersonal conflict alone – let alone a national, or global problem by ourselves. But we do have the power to contribute to better outcomes.
Turn to higher powers, experts, friends and family for guidance and feedback. The challenges of the world are complex and require all of us to reflect and carefully consider the possibilities for resolution.
Charity. Invest in solutions to find reconciliation while recognizing that peace and healing do not occur overnight. For some challenges, it will take far beyond our lifetime. For others, the fruit of our labor is seen immediately. Either way, the process of guiding our feelings and actions in the year ahead will begin to restore our broken world.
On Yom Kippur, we stand as human beings, flesh-and-blood, praying for the welfare and future of ourselves, our family, our community and our world. And we are not alone in our prayers. Through the efforts of many individuals, our reflections and plans can yield a positive outcome in these challenging times.
May we all have a good and healthy year in which we make a meaningful difference in the world.
-Dr. Jordan Golin, President & CEO of JFCS