Yom Kippur and Free Will


Decisions, decisions. Who really makes the big choices in our lives?

The Unetanah Tokef prayer is arguably the most dramatic part of the High Holiday liturgy. It describes all of humanity parading before God like a line of sheep passing by a shepherd. For each person, God makes a critical decision: “Who shall live and who shall die, who shall reach the end of their days and who shall not…”

According to the (unnamed) poet who wrote this prayer, God decrees the answer to all these questions on Rosh Hashanah, and seals them with finality on Yom Kippur. But human beings are more than pawns in God’s game of chess. The prayer reaches its climax with a strong declaration about human free will: “But repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the evil decree!”

Part of being human is realizing that some areas of life we can control, and others we can’t. Rather than expressing despair about what is fated or predetermined, our challenge is to focus on the things we can control–and try our best to do them well.

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