I have been talking up climate change at my synagogue for some time now. Maybe that is why the rabbis asked me to give a brief personal reflection on one of the central prayers recited during these Jewish High Holy Days.
The prayer is the Unetaneh Tokef—which means, ‘let us speak of the awesomeness.’ It is not an easy prayer to be with. It begins with a litany of ways we could meet our end in the coming year. “Who shall live and who shall die. Who will perish by water and who by fire… Who by famine, who by thirst. Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented…”
After we read/chant our way through this exhaustive list, the prayer closes by saying we can reverse the severity of the decree by returning to our G-d selves (teshuva), praying (tefillah), and doing righteous acts (tzedakah).
One could easily interpret the poem to mean that we can save ourselves from floods, famines, and fires, if only we are kind and do good deeds.
I read it differently.
As a climate activist, I work hard to be kind and do good deeds. And still my morning news reads like the Unetaneh Tokef, an accounting of untimely deaths by hurricanes, floods, fires, droughts, and record breaking heat. Despite my best efforts, the disasters continue and may one day be at my door.
The Unetaneh Tokef reminds me that no matter the circumstances, who I am in the face of this heart wrenching, often frustrating, at times paralyzing work, is my choice. To do this work in the most heartfelt way I need three things: inner grounding—an unflappable core of stillness; a connection to a larger presence—call it G-d, the universe, all that is; and a community of others committed to doing righteous acts.
Teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah.
In this coming year, some shall live and some shall die. Some by fire and some by water. That I can’t control. But the precepts of teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah can help me meet climate change with equanimity, gratitude, and grace.