A matter of translation

A matter of translation

Does it make a difference if our prayer books refer to God as “You” or “Thou”? Some people like the poetic grandeur of “Thou.” Others point out that the Hebrew is more faithfully translated as “You.” Even more significant than whether we call God “Thou” or “You” is a translation that reframes our understanding of the words of one the greatest of our liturgical works on these High Holidays, the Days of Awe.

It occurs in the prayer “Oo’n’tanah tokef.” With vivid imagery, the author describes a scene in heaven. We speak of God, Who discerns our motives. God records, seals, counts, and measures all of our actions of the previous year. Then we read of the sound of a great shofar, seizing even the angels with dread, as each person passes before God. The prayer continues, “You bring everything that lives before you for review. You determine the life and decree the destiny of every living thing. We pray that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – Who shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it…who shall live and who shall die.”

We are reminded of how our lives and the lives of those close to us have changed over the past year. We are unsure of what will happen in the future. This mood of a fated destiny is ended with the words, “But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness can…” Let me stop here and continue with two possible translations of the next phrase. Will repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness “avert the severe decree”? Or will they “annul the severity of the decree”? These are two very different views. How we translate that phrase gives us different ways to look at life.

The first translation tells us that repentance, prayer, and acts of kindness determine what will happen in the future. Such actions will “avert” the evil decree. If we follow a path with those three activities, we can be certain that we will live and have a good and prosperous year. That theology suffers from one fault. The world does not always work that way. As we all know, repentance, prayer, and acts of kindness do not inevitably affect whether or not we get a clean bill of health from our doctor, or whether an x-ray reveals a deadly disease. Nor will they determine if we win the lottery, get a raise, or face foreclosure.

We all know serious Jews who have been blessed in many ways and others who lead difficult lives. There is no clear relationship between the goodness of their lives and the size of their Federation pledge or the number of needy people they invite to share their meals. In the Talmud, we read about scholars of equal merit and equal learning. One lived in luxury and the other barely had enough to eat. The Rabbis say that it is not in our power to understand the suffering of the good or the prosperity of the evil. Yes we can exercise, stop smoking, wear seat belts, and eat less meat. Those actions can help us to live better lives, but even they do not guarantee well- being or success

Translating the words by saying that repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness “annul the severity of the decree” points to a different conclusion. It reminds us that the length of our lives (or “quantity” of our years) will always remain a divine mystery. Who indeed shall live and who shall die this year? In truth, only God knows. However, the “quality” of our lives is in our hands. We can reduce the pain that accompanies our misfortune, and we can increase the joy that surrounds our blessings. That is the real message of the prayer.

Imagine if every day of the year, instead of just three days a year, we were able to turn from what we know is the wrong path and choose to act righteously. Such daily repentance would attune our actions with our highest ideals. Our year would be better if we approached God in prayer and sought God’s presence in our lives. That is a reminder that no matter how much pain we feel, we are never alone. Doing kind deeds not only benefits the ones we aid but gives us a sense of purpose. It renews our empathy and enlarges our soul. With those daily practices, the sting of misfortune can be reduced.

I won’t get into the argument here as to whether the pronouns that refer to God should be translated as “He” or “She.” Actually, God is neither. I want only to follow a specific translation of a phrase in our High Holiday liturgy, and that phrase reminds us to follow a path of repentance, prayer, and acts of kindness. By doing so, we can be resilient and have a good year, whether blessings or, heaven forbid, curses befall us. On such a path may we all be inscribed for a good New Year.