I really like this interpretation of the death litany:
The prayer itself is a list of ways people die. It purpose isn’t to scare you, but to get your attention: “Hey! This could be your last year on earth. How do you want to live it? Enslaved to old habits? Obsessed with trivialities? Self¬–absorbed and clinging? Or is this a time to turn, reflect, and let go?”And from this post on tshuvah:
You are going to die. If not this year, maybe next year, or the year after that. So death isn’t your problem. Your problem is how to live until you die. Unetanah Tokef challenges us to live with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Teshuvah, weakly translated as “repentance” literally means “turning,” and is the act of turning from evil and doing good, turning from self to others, turning from fear to love, turning from self to God. Tefillah is prayer, and in Hebrew the act of praying (hitpallel) is reflexive: true prayer is seeing who you really are as the image and likeness of God and then acting accordingly. Acting accordingly means practicing tzedakah. Tzedakah, from tzedek, justice, is the act of uplifting the poor and enfranchising the disenfranchised. The highest form of tzedakah is seeing that people are gainfully employed and self–supporting. Tzedakah means earning your money honestly in a manner than does no harm, and using your money wisely in a manner that does great good.
So on this birthday of humanity, take a moment and remember your mortality, examine your life, and where necessary turn toward a deeper act of generosity.
The word Tshuvah doens’t really mean “repentance,” but “return.” “Return” means that rather than saying one is sorry and moving on to the next wretched remark, one has to realize that one has walked way off the right path, turn around and walk all the way back. It is insufficient to apologize and move on, becasue usually, the things that we do wrong are not single mistakes in an otherwise unblemished life. No, we humans are creatures of pattern and habit, and that eans those mistakes that we make aren’t just about a one-ff. THey are usually part of a larger pattern of behavior which we need to observe and reform. That is one of the reasons why Judaism is based on laws - halakha- not feelings: tzedaka, not caritas, for example-From a poem Velveteen Rabbi wrote:
psychology confirms what the rabbis have been telling us for centuries: peoples’ behavior is not driven by rational choice making, but rather by impulses often driven by habit, which are then after the fact justified. Which means that more important than good intentions are good habits, good patterns.
BUt there’s one more thing to add here. Sometimes one really does do wrong by accident, or by mistake. In our society today, we often try to emphasize intent and show tht our action was not intended to do harm - that is, in part, the origin of the non-apology. BUt in Judaism, accidents, too require tshuvah - how do we know this? In the Torah, sacrifices are offered for unintentional sins, moreover, check your high holiday liturgy - you may notice that accidental sins are listed there too. In our society, that is counter-intuitive - if it’s an accident, why do we have to say sorry? BUt accidents too, are often not done in a vacuum - they, too, often result from patterns of behavior that result in outcomes that - while we may not have intended them- are inevitable, and results of our actions.
You may not have intended to fall off the roof and land on someone and kill them- but why were you up on a roof without safeguards? Do you tend to behave in risky ways? YOu didn’t intend to get drunk again? Well, why were you hanging out with your drinking buddies and depending on them for a ride?
In Hebrew, “compassion”
shares a root with “womb”
and God is the One in Whose womb
creation is nurtured.
On Rosh Hashanah we say
today the world is born.
Or: this moment right now
is pregnant with eternity.