Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? And Can We Avert the Decree?

We are told that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, “it is written” and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, “it is sealed.” What is “it”? Our fate for the next year. With Erev Yom Kippur, the beginning of this awe inspiring day, almost upon us, it is important to think about who this happens and if we have any say in that “fate.”

Supposedly, we pass before God like a flock of sheep for a reckoning and then a decree is handed out. In a soulful and fear-inducing prayer called U’netoneh Tokef, which means means “Let us describe,” these words are written:


On Rosh Hashanah 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,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.


While I do believe that God has a hand in our destiny, I also believe that we were given free choice about how – and possibly when – we create that destiny. I believe we are co-creators of our lives and that the combination of our thoughts, feelings and actions manifest the things we experience day to day. That said, we are all co-creating, and sometimes – maybe more often than we would like – our manifestations collide creating a fair amount of chaos. In any case, we constantly experience a combination of destiny or fate and conscious or subconscious creation and co-creation.


But repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree.


But repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.


The first translation clearly says that repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree not the decree itself. Here, the point is clear: Repentance, prayer and charity” make a difference,” but these three things cannot always succeed in changing the decree. They can, however, avert the harshness of the decree, meaning how we feel about what happens.

The second translation seems to mean that we can actually change the decree with repentance, prayer and charity – that if we do these three things, we can avert God’s harsh judgement and decision.  That becomes a bit like saying, “If I do this, please, God, don’t do this.” A plea for Divine favors… I see it differently.

When we take time out from the terrible things going on in the world around us or in our lives and repent for the things we ourselves have done wrong – which means looking at ourselves and trying to do a better job of “hitting the mark” (not sinning) and being better people, then we don’t contribute to the wrongdoing in the world.  (The word for “sin” in Hebrew – chet – comes from archery and means “to miss the mark.”) In the process, we create change in ourselves and in our lives. We may also create change in the world around us.

When bad things happen in our life and in our world and we respond by praying or turning to God, we develop or strengthen our have faith. We trust and believe that we will one day realize either why this “bad” thing happened or is happening or find some good that will come out of it. Or maybe we simply trust in God, we don’t allow ourselves to dwell in victim mentality or to become depressed and hopeless. We look to the future with promise, and we don’t stay stuck in the past or in the present where things seem negative and hopeless.

And when we give charity, we look beyond our own suffering and trouble to what other people are going through, and see that we always have something to give. We get out of our own problems for a while, stop focusing upon them and feel better by helping others feel better. Plus, in the Jewish tradition, charity really isn’t charity, in the way we normally think of it. The Hebrew word – tzedakkah – actually means to “do the right thing,” so we are simply being just…becoming a “tzadik,” a just person, a righteous person, a person who does the right thing.

So these three things mentioned in the U’netoneh Tokef prayer – translated as repentance, prayer and charity – “take the bite” out of whatever tragedy has happened in our lives or in the world and help us focus us on the positive, feel better and take action. And in that way we begin, with our thoughts, feelings and actions to begin creating our year – writing ourselves into the book of life for the new year. (If this sounds a little like the Law of Attraction, it is. Check out my booklet, The Kabbalah of Conscious Creation.) In that way, repentance, prayer and charity do, indeed, allow us a chance to CHANGE the evil of the decree. We can create change in our lives and in the world around us with our thoughts, feelings and actions – with repentance (improving ourselves), prayer (faith and hope and trust -positive feelings) and charity (right actions in our lives and in the world.)

If you want to see a really great video that will put the U’netoneh Tokef prayer into a visual form for you – especially just before you head off to services where you will surely hear or read the prayer, watch this:

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die


And, as I get ready to go to Kol Nidre services tonight and Yom Kippur services tomorrow, I want to leave you with one more thought. I was struck on Yom Kippur as the shofar service began (By the way, my son was the ba’al tekiah, the person who blew the shofar….) by a Hasidic teaching that was included in our prayer book, and I wanted to share it with you, because it speaks to the importance of praying from the heart. And this, of course, speaks to the importance of feeling in general when trying to manifest anything – and prayer serves as a powerful way of consciously creating. Most Jews around the world are about to embark upon a full day of fasting and praying. If you want those prayers to be effective, take this teaching to heart:

Do not think that the words of prayer as you say them go up to the Divine, source of all life.

It is not the words themselves that ascend.

It is the burning desire of your heart that rises like smoke.

If your prayer is only words and letters and not your heart’s desire, how can it ascend?

There are lovely Hasidic stories that speak to this…stories of people who don’t know the words of the prayers but who recite the aleph bet (the Hebrew alphabet) with such feeling and intention that they open the Gates of Heaven for everyone in the synaogogue on Yom Kippur. So, keep this in mind as you pray…

And may you be inscribed for a blessed year in all ways, shapes and forms that you heart desires.

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