Once a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov decided he was going to play a trick on his teacher. He caught a butterfly in his hands, cupped them very carefully together so the butterfly was hidden, and brought it to his teacher. He asked the BESHT, is the butterfly in my hands alive or dead? If his teacher said alive, he would kill it. if he said dead, he would release the butterfly into the air. So how did the ba’al shem tov respond to schrodinger’s butterfly? He looked at his student and said, “whether it’s alive or dead is entirely in your hands.”
We live in a society with an ever-shorter attention span that seeks to minimize the actual import and impact of our actions. The High Holiday liturgy, especially unetaneh tokeph, takes us and our choices seriously. They remind us that what we do has cosmic significance. And in a world where everyone is trying to sell you something, to coddle you and fawn over you, to be disturbed and challenged is a luxury. Again, to quote [Larry] Hoffman:
prayer is not supposed to satisfy us. It is intended to get us in touch with centuries past, minds that are not our own, and attitudes that we may find difficult, but that should not on that account be trashed as if they must obviously be less cogent than what we, nowadays, take for granted.
Unetaneh tokeph challenges us. As we read of God opening the book of our lives, we open that book as well, and recount all the events of the past year we’ve signed off on. As we read the various ways people die, we’re reminded of our mortality, a fact we flee constantly, afraid to acknowledge the truth that all of us are afforded limited time. And as we read of how prayer, repentance and charity soften the harshness of the decree, we are reminded that, to quote Rabbi Soloveitchik, “one’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny.” None of these things take away our mortality; we are finite, a dream soon forgotten, but this prayer and those like it show us that frailty and humility are not sources of weakness or failure, but of wisdom and strength. And that while we may experience loss, and pain, and bitterness, we can take comfort in a strong community of worship, find love though acts of forgiveness and repentance, and remove bitterness from our lives and the lives of others through the charity of our hands. Or, to quote someone far wiser than me: we are moral creatures, we are vulnerable creatures. Vulnerability wins. This is the realest thing anyone anyone will tell us in ritual.