Maybe it’s not a coincidence that a disaster or tragedy strikes so often just before the High Holy Days. The Munich massacre, 9/11, Katrina, now Harvey — is that the Universe’s way of driving home the words of the Unetanah Tokef prayer?
On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed —
how many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast,
who by famine and who by thirst,
who by war and who by plague,
who by strangling and who by stoning.
Who will rest and who will wander,
who will live in harmony and who will be harried,
who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer,
who will be impoverished and who will be enriched,
who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.
It could be that August and September were as tough on our ancestors as on us: months when the earth burns under unrelenting sun or floods in Noah-like storms. So they figured God was telling them it was time to think existential thoughts.
This year, I was laid low in August. I went home after work on Aug. 22 feeling a bit off, and woke up the next day as if I had just gone 10 rounds with McGregor and Mayweather. Not one or the other — both. Every year I get a flu shot, so it’s been years since I experienced a full viral knockout. This one caught me with my guard down and laid me out for a week.
I was still able to read, keep up with work via email, catch up on shows I’d been missing (“Red Oaks,” “Fleabag” — both engaging, almost flu-worthy), and, of course — of course — keep up on the news. Because I rarely left our spare bedroom for fear of being Patient Zero to the rest of the household, I subjected myself to an unhealthy amount of news.
On the night of Aug. 25, before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Hurricane Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The 85-year-old disgraced convict was one of those people I always suspected karma or the law would catch up with, and it was a good day when he was found guilty. Not for abusing and humiliating prisoners, targeting random Latinos for arrest, or trafficking in racist lies against a sitting president — Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. Just like many gangsters, it was the stuff he never thought twice about that took him down.
The lesson of the High Holy Days is that redemption can come with repentance. But President Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe not because he showed remorse or repentance, but precisely because he didn’t. By standing up to minorities, courts and critics of the left and right, Arpaio made himself a hero to Trump. If he had apologized, he’d be doing time.
Repentance, says the High Holy Day prayer, can save our souls. How sad we have a president who last week taught this lesson to our children: Repentance is for losers.
Then came the flood. CNN told the story of a couple who slept on their car roof for two nights in the pouring rain, inches above the floodwaters, until rescuers arrived. The rescuers were volunteers who had towed their boat from two hours away just to help out. President Trump’s response was helpful and efficient. The flood was unrelenting, but so was the relief.
Nothing can stop Americans from springing into action to help or donate to those in immediate need. But that same wondrous empathy goes dormant if the emergency is less than in our face. We’ll carry a cold baby over our heads to safety, but vote for the guy who wants to take health care away from that baby’s mom. We’ll dive into floodwaters for search and rescue, but refuse to fund the science showing the link between a 1-in-500-year flood and climate change. We’ll donate blankets and food to a teenager in a relief center, then support the guy who wants to deport him.
Charity, says the Unetanah Tokef, can avert the severe decree, but how do we get people to expand their idea of charity?
I’m not neglecting the other news — Jared Kushner took a field trip to the Middle East; the Israel Defense Forces demolished two Palestinian schools on the eve of the new school year, alleging they lacked permits; there was some boxing match. Then, just as my fever broke and the flu rented an Airbnb inside my lungs, North Korea shot a missile over Japan and North Korean President Kim Jong Un promised the next one would be in the direction of the U.S. territory of Guam. After that, your guess is as good as mine. What can be done?
Prayer, says the Unetanah Tokef, will “avert the severe decree.” Come the High Holy Days, I recommend it. And a flu shot.