Biblical Tales Resonate Anew in Modern Times




One of the most resonant prayers of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the piyyut, or "poem," known by its first two words, "U'netaneh Tokef" — "Let us declare the powerful holiness of this day." The origins of this haunting litany are mysterious, intensifying the impact of the words — "On Rosh Hashanah it is recorded and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass away and how many shall be born … ." As the poem continues, each of us who listens or recites it becomes transfixed by the words that foretell our destiny. The refrain that concludes this portion gives our heart pause: "But teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah/repentance, prayer and righteous deeds transform the harshness of the decree." (These translations are from Renew Our Days: A Prayer-Cycle for Days of Awe, edited and translated by Rabbi Ronald Aigen.)

The theme of human vulnerability before the Divine Sovereign is also reflected in the scriptural readings. On Rosh Hashanah day, many of us will read Genesis 21. This action-packed chapter begins, "And God remembered Sarah … ."

For many years, Sarah longs to become pregnant, and finally, God remembers her. The Torah tells of conflict between Sarah and her handmaid, Hagar, who has borne a son, Ishmael, to the patriarch Abraham. When Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away from the family compound, God takes note of them, saving their lives and promising that Ishmael will thrive in the future.

Each year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, the texts that describe and explore the complex threads of interdependency between parents and children are expanded beyond the Torah to the prophetic books. Our Haftorah portion, from the first book of Samuel, introduces us to another pair of women, both married to Elkanah. Peninah conceives easily. Hannah longs for a child.

Every year, these ancient stories resonate for us in new ways.

Here in Pennsylvania, because our elected officials failed to pass a fair and equitable budget for the Commonwealth in a timely way, many of those served by state-funded human-service agencies and nonprofits were left without options. Children, parents, and the elderly were denied programs and supportive structures that provide essential food, shelter and medical care.

The Pennsylvania budget is not a partisan issue. Providing for the care, well-being and dignity of those who serve and are served by our state is a moral issue that demands our continuing attention and vigilance.

Just in time, Gov. Ed Rendell and members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate appear to have finally set partisanship aside and reached an imperfect, but possibly workable, compromise. We must hope that intervention hasn't come too late for some.

The biblical stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Elkanah, Peninah and Hannah introduce us to human beings like ourselves — individuals who struggle to balance responsibility and love, equity and justice, each wrestling with the harshness of life's decrees. During these Days of Awe, the "U'netaneh Tokef" reminds us that we have the power to transform lives.

In this new year, each of us, every day, has the opportunity to engage in an act of justice, of righteousness, of compassion. May our tzedakah, our righteous deeds, increase in 5770, so that we may be recorded and sealed for good, for health and for life.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the Worship Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.


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