But repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel the stern decree—by B.J. Yudelson*

This sentence ends the prayer that I discussed in my last blog, the one that begins, On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…

I don’t recall noticing it the first half of my life. In my youth, the choir may have sung it in Hebrew, which I didn’t understand. If I recited it with the congregation, it was surely in English. The English may have been the same as what appears in my grandmother’s 1927 Reform Jewish prayer book: But Penitence, Prayer, and Charity avert the evil decree.

Later, when Julian and I belonged to Conservative synagogues, and when I had learned a little Hebrew, I either sounded it out in Hebrew with minimal understanding or read it in English, But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severe decree. I don’t remember noticing it one way or another. It was just one prayer among many recited with the congregation on the High Holidays.

And then my life changed. An inebriated driver struck Ruth, my middle child. She was buried almost thirty-four years ago, one week before her fourteenth birthday. Perhaps the first year or two I was too depressed during the High Holidays to notice. Chances are, it took several years for the line to pop out at me. But when it did, it flashed in neon lights: But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severe decree.

Wait a minute! Ruth was out of town at a synagogue youth group convention, walking with a group to her hosts’ home, when the drunk driver hit her and several other teens from behind. They had spent the evening praying and singing and “doing Jewish.” I was told that Ruth’s enthusiasm infected the others. And yet, she fell victim to the “stern decree.” Did this mean that Ruth hadn’t prayed hard enough? Did she not do enough for others? Did she fail to take stock of herself and try to change bad habits (at a mere thirteen years old)? How could her death be her fault? And yet, that’s what the prayer seemed to say. It is written and sealed, who will live and who will die.. who by earthquake and who by plague. I read plague as the curse of drunken driving. Some 25,000 people nationwide died because of intoxicated drivers in 1981, the year Ruth was killed.

Each year, as I grew less depressed and more alert to the words I was reading, I read this line with more revulsion. Not the way I wanted to react on the holiest days of the Jewish year. And then my son came to my rescue. He suggested that the Hebrew was not translated correctly. It did not say severe (or harsh or stern or evil, as the word roah is variously translated) decree but the severity (or whichever term you prefer) of the decree. Hebrew has a way to say severe decree: Hagzerah haraah. The Hebrew here is ro-ah hagzerah. This fine point of grammar totally changes the meaning from the decree being harsh to the effects of the decree being harsh.

Not only was Ruth’s death terrible but the effects on her family were horrific. I could pray that the results be averted, turned aside.

But then came another epiphany, thanks to an Israeli friend with whom I discussed it this year. The word that is variously translated avert or cancel or remove doesn’t mean that at all. There are perfectly good Hebrew words with those meanings. But they aren’t used here. Ma-avirin , the word that is used, comes from the root word that means to pass, cross, go through. Here it appears in the causative form with a meaning closer to take across, walk someone through, enable to go through.

Aha! Repentance, prayer, and righteousness—actions that are within my power—can help me through the negative effects of the decree, the thing that happened over which I had no control. They can help me learn to live with the impossible.

Having gotten this far in examining the meaning of the Hebrew, I found myself at the beginning of the line. V’teshuvah, u’tefilah u’tzedakah…And repentance and prayer and righteousness… Still moving back to front, righteousness has to do with how we relate to others, to community. Prayer deals with communication with God. Repentance talks about our relationship to ourselves. Together, these words cover all of our relationships.

If my experience is typical, tzedakah, righteousness, is the easiest to do after a horrible event. It was simple to write a check in memory of Ruth. I remember sending money to various disability causes because Ruth at 13 had wanted to “teach handicapped kids when I grow up. Normal kids would be too boring.” With each check went a note describing my daughter and what had happened. The recipients may or may not have cared, but for me it was cathartic. It also seemed natural to get involved in Rochester Against Intoxicated Driving. Perhaps I could make a difference and save some other family the despair we were going through.

Next came tefilah, prayer. I may have read the words outwardly, but inwardly I was screaming at God. Why did this happen? Why Ruth? Why me? Why? Why? Why? If God couldn’t handle my anger, that was God’s problem, not mine. Better to yell at God than at my husband or children.

Finally came teshuvah, generally translated as repentance but not really meaning that in the sentence of guilt and penitence. The root of the word is shuv, return. Teshuvah is returning. In the sense of repentance, it refers to returning to God. It means being sorry for your bad actions, determining not to repeat them, and thereby returning to a state of at-one-ment (as my first rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta explained “atonement” to our class decades and decades ago) with God.

But the thing that makes teshuvah so difficult after a negative life-changing event is not returning to God. It’s returning to oneself. I wasn’t used to being depressed. I wasn’t accustomed to being sad all the time. I didn’t like this new, pessimistic, downbeat me, and I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life with the person I had become. One Shabbat evening, several years after Ruth’s death, I lit my five candles as usual, one for each member of my family. But this particular Friday night I found myself asking God to help me return to myself. I prayed that God would restore me to the person I used to be, a person who was less self-centered and reached out to others, a person who could think about something and someone besides Ruth. Although it didn’t happen overnight, I recall that moment as the beginning of my healing.

Perhaps the best way to think of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah is restoring the balance with oneself, with God, and with the community. How? By enabling us to walk through the worst effects of the decree until we come out on the other side. Get over it? There are some events that are so horrific that we never get over them. But at least with this reading of this central prayer for the High Holidays, we can have hope that through our own actions, and with the support of our communities, we can lessen the negative effects. By returning to one’s true self, by communicating with the Divine, and by performing righteous deeds we can cross to a place where we can write ourselves into the Book of Life. We can’t change what’s happened, but we can move forward to choose life.

* The essay was first published in 2014.
First essay in the series Four Women’s Essays on Rosh Hashanah and on Friendships