This year will mark my seventh Rosh HaShanah that I will be leading Musaf. I began in 2014; and from the outset, I decided that each year I will focus on one aspect of davening to improve. The first year, I focused on Malchiyus, Zichronos, and Shofaros. The next year, it was Hineni. However, there was one other part of davening that I chose to set my mind to changing every year: U’N’saneh Tokef.
For those unfamiliar, U’N’saneh Tokef is the piyut [Jewish liturgical poem] that comes immediately before K’dushah on the Yamim Nora’im. It’s divided into two paragraphs. The first paragraph explains the Day of Judgment. Personally, this section does not change all that much, year to year. The poem is an awesome depiction of how we hope G-d will judge his nation, complete with the sound of the shofar, angels trembling in fear, and how we each pass before Hashem individually to be judged on our own merit.
The second paragraph talks about how, on Rosh HaShanah, every event of the year is written out, and those decrees are sealed on Yom Kippur. The paragraph goes on to list all the ways in which people may die in the coming year. And it is here that my preparation changes each year. You see, although this paragraph is a prospective look on the coming year, it is impossible not to look back on the past year and see the carnage that was determined one year ago. In 2014, the focus for me was on the line mi ba’cherev – who by the sword – as the world witnessed Israel’s war with Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge, where thousands of lives were lost. It was easy for us to remember it, as the whole thing ended at the end of August and was still fresh in our minds. Since then, each year I made it my business to focus on the one large story of the year that we can all hold onto while chanting B’Rosh HaShanah yikaseivun, u’v’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichaseimun.
And then 5780 happened.
Most people blame 2020 solely for being the worst year on record. But the truth is, much of the issues in 2020 started at the end of 2019, which includes all of the Jewish year 5780. As Chanukah passed, I thought this was going to be another mi ba’cherev year. It’s hard to recall, but it was this past year that there was a series of attacks on the Jewish community that led to a mass rally against anti-Semitism in January. One of these attacks was even carried out with a literal sword. Little did we know that this was just the start.
My thoughts then shifted towards the possibility of this year being a mi ba’eish – who by fire. There were the wildfires running throughout Australia, which have killed 28 people to date. This would also include the high-profile death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter. And while there are those who would question why his death deserves to be mentioned here, I can refer you back to my column on him at the time. Additionally, the Yamim Nora’im are times where not only the Jewish people are judged, but all of the nations, as well.
And then we come to the big one. Coronavirus, which started in 2019 (hence COVID-19) also began in 5780. This one leads us to lean heavily into mi ba’mageifah – who by plague. COVID has ended the lives of hundreds of thousands, and damaged the lives of millions, if not billions. And for a while, it was obvious that this would be the story of the year.
But 5780 wasn’t done yet. George Floyd was killed via strangulation – mi ba’chanikah. Peaceful protests turned into violent clashes, with more people dying as a result, many of them young, including a teenager in Seattle – mi lo b’kitzo. More fire. More weapons. More destruction. In retrospect, this whole paragraph wasn’t asking if people would die from these things in 5780, but how many would die this way. And frankly, this year I am at a loss for on which part to focus. How can we highlight any of the terrible outcomes of the year when they were all applicable?
Then it hit me. This prayer is written prospectively. We don’t need to focus on 5780. 5780 is over. By the time we say these words for real, it will be 5781. It’s a fresh start. We don’t want to go back to those times. The way we channel our emotions of the maladies mentioned is by focusing on the end of the tefilah. If you want to reverse the decrees that befell our nation – and, indeed, the world – in the coming year, there is an outline of how to do so: through t’shuvah, t’filah, and tz’dakah. In these ways, and only these ways, will the severity of the decree be annulled.
This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, let’s not focus on what has passed us by, but rather focus on the good that will come in 5781. I wish you all a k’sivah v’chasimah tovah.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.