For most people, the most powerful liturgy in our prayers is u’Nesaneh Tokef. It’s the part that people most connect with.
The first part sets the scene:
כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – Awesome and frightening, today, Your kingship rises…
The second part sets what is at stake:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת – Who lives, who dies…
The third part declares that we don’t believe in fate. There is hope! Nothing is set in stone, and we trust Hashem. We shout loudly:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree!
Rabbi Sacks explains that this third part is a crystal clear paradigm of what we believe.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might be about what will happen in our lives. But even that is not set in stone. We simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate. More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves; in our power to change through prayer, improvement, and good deeds. We believe that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies. We hope.
We cling on to hope, always. How many prophecies of doom were averted when people changed? That’s what we read about on Yom Kippur, in the story of Yonah and Ninveh.
The Gemara teaches that with a sword on your neck, you still pray. Hope remains.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה don’t mean repentance, prayer, and charity. תְשׁוּבָה means homecoming and return; because we have lost our way. But hope is not lost; we just need to come back. תְפִלָּה means judging yourself. Where do you really stand? But there is hope. צְדָקָה means justice. It’s not just nice, it is the just thing to do. Because others need hope.
Together, they are מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – because there is always hope. In the darkest of times, when the odds are stacked, hope remains.
The closing of u’Nesaneh Tokef says how אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר – man’s beginning and ending are earth and dirt. This recalls imagery of Yakov, who, at the lowest point in his life, dreams of a ladder on the dirt:
וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה – It’s base was on the earth, but it reached the skies above…
We come from the dirt, but with hope, we can reach the skies.