A Prayer For The New Year
Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jewish educator and writer living in Palo Alto, CA. This piece was originally posted on her blog about Jewish culture, education, current events and parenting, called Truth, Praise and Help: Musings of a Gen X Yiddishe Mama.
As the catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti yesterday and the extent of its devastation is beginning to be revealed, I thought about how sad it is that 2010 is beginning in this way. And, as my mind is wont to free associate, I found myself reciting the words of the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the most widely known prayers from services at another New Year – the Jewish one – on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some may only know this prayer through Leonard Cohen’s song, Who By Fire, which was directly inspired by it, and whose music clearly echoes the minor-key sounds of davening:
The words of this prayer we recite at the Jewish New Year go as follows:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur 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 at his predistined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm…
…and it goes on. The final phrase of the excerpt I have quoted here, “who by storm” is only one translation of the original Hebrew, “Mi baRa’ash.” Ra’ash is often used to mean “loud noise,” or “earthquake.” It has also been used as a catchall for any and all natural disasters, or as some put it, “acts of God.” It was by “ra’ash” that so many – thousands upon thousands – good, defenseless, impoverished Haitians have just died.
Later in the Unetaneh Tokef, it is written that teshuvah (repentance), u’tefillah (prayer), u’tzeddakah (charity) remove the evil decree. It is a nice sentiment, but as we all know, this is not always how it works. Sh-t happens, and as Rabbi Harold Kushner has written about, bad things happen to good people. Contrary to the unconscionable remarks by Pat Robertson today, the Haitians did not bring this horrific earthquake and its attendant suffering on themselves:
I like to understand the exhortation for repentance, prayer and charity, as good advice for how to live your life no matter what. These three things do have immense power to change a life – yours and that of others. They are likely the ticket to a good life, but not necessarily a long one. You can hope that they pay for a very long trip, but you shouldn’t be too surprised if it turns out that your fare runs out earlier than you had wished it would.
Regardless of whether or not repentance, prayer and charity had anything to do with the events of January 12, 2010, they have a lot to do with today and the many days to come in which the world needs to come together to provide rescue, relief, and rebuilding assistance to Haiti. In Hebrew, repentance is teshuvah, a return, a going back to a better place than where we now find ourselves. The international community can do better by Haiti, a country that has not caught a break in its entire history. The Haitians need our thoughts and prayers, and probably most of all, they need our monetary donations right now to provide food, water, medicine, shelter, rescue equipment and infrastructure.
Please join me in making a donation to the American World Jewish Service’s Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund, or to another organization of your choice.