“Who will live and who will die? Who will die at their predestined time and who before their time? Who by water?... Who by famine and who by thirst?... Who will rest and who will wander?”
For hundreds of years, Jews have asked God these questions about themselves as part of the solemn Unetaneh Tokef prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah. This year, before we ask God these questions, we must ask ourselves how we will answer them for the thousands of refugees fleeing various countries in Africa and the Middle East. Today, Jewish people have an opportunity to determine the answers to these questions for others. We must ensure that these answers are what we would hope to receive ourselves.
While the exact composition date of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is unknown, it was likely written at some point during the Jewish exile. During this nearly 2,000-year-long period, Jews had little control over their own destinies, let alone the fate of others. They were subjected to expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and a Holocaust. In the midst of these recurring tragedies, they gathered every year on Rosh Hashanah to ask God with genuine uncertainty what trials the coming year might bring.
Today, Jews still face many threats and, like all human beings, our fates are uncertain. However, we also live in privileged circumstances that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors just a few generations ago.
The overwhelming majority of Jews live in two of the world’s most economically developed countries: Israel and the United States. Ranked among the planet’s 224 countries, Israel has the 19th-longest average life expectancy and America has the 42nd. Israel has the 22nd-highest GDP per capita and the United States has the 8th. In short, Jews live primarily in two of the healthiest and richest countries in the world. Consequently, contemporary Jewish prayers regarding survival have a drastically different meaning than they did for Jews not so long ago.
This is not the case for the thousands of refugees trying to escape the horrors of war and violence, or the prolonged torture of poverty and disease. Although they are almost exclusively not Jewish and, therefore, will not be reciting Unetaneh Tokef next week, there is no doubt that the central questions of the prayer -- “Who will live and who will die?” -- reverberate in their heads as they make dangerous treks across inhospitable lands -- “Who by famine and who by thirst?”-- and sail in small boats across choppy seas -- “Who by water?”.
Jews in Israel and the United States have the power to help answer these refugees’ questions with the same life-affirming answers that we hope for ourselves. In Israel, the Jewish majority single-handedly determines state policy, and in the United States the Jewish vote is often considered critical, despite its relatively small size. In both countries, Jews can use their influence to push their countries to absorb as many refugees as possible -- to grant them life.
The Talmud relates a story of a non-Jew who asked Rabbi Hillel to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof. Go and learn it.”
Hillel’s teaching reminds us that it would undermine the very fabric of Judaism to do to others that which we find hateful. If we truly fear death and suffering in the coming year as we claim in Unetaneh Tokef, it is our duty to make sure that we do everything in our power to save others from such terrible fates.
Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @Ayalon83.
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