On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast…
— From the Unetane Tokef prayer
Over many years, epochal historical events have lined up with the High Holidays. I recall sitting down to a family Rosh Hashana dinner in 1982, shortly after reports of the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by a Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia. This came toward the end of Israel’s Lebanon War. Perhaps my comments helped spoil the mood of conviviality that evening.
And who can forget the fraught emotions we felt in shul, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? The words of the Unetane Tokef prayer had a stronger resonance that year: “Who shall perish by water and who by fire…”
I’m not a rabbi or Judaic scholar; but I found some background to this dramatic prayer. Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer wrote:
On both days [of Rosh Hashana], the magnificent Unetana tokef (we shall ascribe holiness to this day) is chanted prior to the Kedusha. Although there are popular legends concerning the origin of this piyyut, we do not know who wrote it. What is certain is that the poet was extremely gifted. The structure of the poem and its language suggest that it was composed during the Byzantine period.
The concepts on which it is based come from Jewish apocalyptic literature and parallel Christian writings based on similar sources, the most famous of which is the Dies irae (day of wrath) — found in the requiem mass — which offers a vivid description of the day of judgment for all humankind. In Unetana tokef, however, the subject is not the final judgment but the much more immediate, yearly day of judgment — Rosh Hashana.
In 2014, the world again seems like a madhouse, if you scan the newspaper headlines. Perhaps, the hours we spend in synagogue this year will be a time of calm reflection and introspection. God knows, we need to relax a bit, as we do our cheshbon hanefesh, soul searching.
Regarding our Rosh Hashana special edition, we were waiting for an op-ed article about the threat from global climate change. However, we learned that the article wouldn’t come in time for our press deadline.
So, I’ll pick up the slack a bit here. The United Nations will host a Sept. 23 summit on the climate crisis. Two days before that event, on Sunday, Sept. 21, the People’s Climate March — billed as “the biggest climate march in history” — will make its way through the streets of New York. You can learn more about this at: peoplesclimate.org/march.
This week I happened to see an article by Noam Chomsky with the ominous title, “Are We Approaching the End of Human History?” The article originally appeared in the journal In These Times, and was reposted this week on Bill Moyers’ Web site.
Chomsky, whom some know as a strident critic of Israel, surveys the dismal events of late in the Middle East, and then looks at the climate change crisis.
“The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world,” writes Chomsky.
“The report concludes that increasing greenhouse gas emissions risk ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems’ over the coming decades. The world is nearing the temperature when loss of the vast ice sheet over Greenland will be unstoppable. Along with melting Antarctic ice, that could raise sea levels to inundate major cities as well as coastal plains.”
The era of civilization coincides closely with the geological epoch of the Holocene, beginning over 11,000 years ago. The previous Pleistocene epoch lasted 2.5 million years. Scientists now suggest that a new epoch began about 250 years ago, the Anthropocene, the period when human activity has had a dramatic impact on the physical world. The rate of change of geological epochs is hard to ignore.
One index of human impact is the extinction of species, now estimated to be at about the same rate as it was 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth. That is the presumed cause for the ending of the age of the dinosaurs, which opened the way for small mammals to proliferate, and ultimately modern humans. Today, it is humans who are the asteroid, condemning much of life to extinction.
Getting back to the People’s Climate March, organizers are hoping that 100,000 or more people will gather in New York on Sept. 21. The Guardian newspaper in London recently interviewed Ricken Patel, of the “digital campaign group Avaaz,” an organizer of the march.
“We in the movement, activists, have failed up until this point to put up a banner and say if you care about this, now is the time, here is the place, let’s come together, to show politicians the political power that is out there,” he told the newspaper. “Our goal is to mobilize the largest climate change mobilization in history and the indications are we’re going to get there.”
These are spooky times, with threats coming from all directions, and instantaneous communications make it possible for everyone around the globe to tune into the bleak news. In the case of global climate change, we all have a stake in a solution. And perhaps it’s not too late to mitigate the potential harm to the planet.
In the case of the High Holidays, and the ominous Unetane Tokef prayer, Rabbi Hammer wrote: “But this is not a day of suffering without hope. No matter what one has done, says the poet, the severe decree — the penalty of death — can be averted. Indeed, one need only follow the advice of the Sages, ‘Three things cancel the decree, and they are prayer, charity, and repentance’ (Genesis Rabba 44:12).”
The editors and staff of the American Jewish World wish all of our readers a Happy and Sweet New Year.
— Mordecai Specktor / firstname.lastname@example.org
(American Jewish World, 9.12.14)