The Un'taneh Tokef prayer that we are about to recite challenges us with the stark statement that on Rosh Hashanah it is written who shall live and who shall die. We then read that t'shuvah may affect which book our name is written in. Taken literally this passage would indicate that we have no control over our fate once the Books of Life and Death are sealed on Yom Kippur. The pessimists among us would likely approach their upcoming year with dread and worry. Why approach life with fervor if your fate is sealed?
I take the prayer more metaphorically. It tells us that we must undergo a deep sense of reflection of how we have lived our lives in the past and to set a higher standard for ourselves. These days of awe remind us of our mortality and our fragility. Although there seems to be a randomness of who will die, we still have a choice of doing good or freezing when confronted with our mortality. The prayer relates to a message of the last week's parsha that we must "choose life." Another wards, we must choose to do good.
When I think of 9/11 I remember that many of us stopped in our tracks and in many cases we feared and expected the worst, similarly to our initial fearful reaction to this prayer. The events may have made us think that our collective fate was written and little hope remained. However, when I recently re-read the last acts of some of those who died, I saw the bright light of many who truly chose life when confronted with death. They chose to act with humanity and compassion. Instead of being passive with fear, they acted.
I read about Shimi Biegeleisen who phoned his wife that there had been an explosion in the World Trade Tower, but that he was OK. After the second explosion, he phoned her again to say the tower he was in was just hit four floors below his office. When overcome with emotion, she gave the phone to a friend. He then implored his friend by saying "Take care of Miriam and take care of my children, I am not coming out of this." His words show me that even when facing certain death, he still had the strength to act on his love and commitment to his family.
I read again about Abe Zelmanowicz, an Orthodox Jew who stayed in a burning tower with his Christian friend Edward Vihae, a 42 year old quadriplegic. Vihae who was bound to his wheelchair told Zelmanowicz to get out and save himself. But he refused. He urged the others to go, but insisted that he would be staying behind with his friend. Up to the end of his life, Zelmanowicz epitomized acts of friendship and selflessness.
Then there was the story of Father Michael Judge who immediately went to the World Trade Centers when he found out about the explosions. He rushed off in his fire gear before his beeper went off. As a fire department Chaplain, he went into the building never to return. He died in the collapse, along with hundreds of other firefighters. His actions and the acts of all the other firefighters and police officers reminded me that the survival of our communities depend on the commitment of each other to a sense of duty.
Then there was the heroism of the passengers who fought back on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. They showed me that even in the final moments of certain death; they were able to choose life for others.
These days of awe are troubling. Initially, we may think we have little control. But as we read in Pirkei Avot, from a passage by Rabbi Akiba "Everything is foreseen (by God), but freedom of choice is granted." Our actions can help insure that good ultimately triumphs. Rabbi Wayne Dosick offers an alternative translation of the Un'taneh Tokef phrase "How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be?" He translates it instead as "How many in this year will have to pass through troubles such as fire, famine, pestilence. A question for each one of us is then how we will respond to the difficulties that we may face in life. The actions of some of those who died on 9/11 show us that people can choose acts of goodness even when confronted by death. Hopefully, none of us will be confronted with those same types of horrors, but the goodness of their acts must motivate us to choose life when and if we face much smaller hurdles. May each one of us take actions during this next year that show that we too choose life by how we show our love to others, by our sense of duty and how we can see beyond ourselves.