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Sep 09 2013

Unetaneh Tokef and the Pope

What do you know about St. Francis of Assisi, and what does he have to do with the Unetaneh Tokef prayer? One of the best news stories of this past year, as far as I’m concerned, was the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Catholic pope. The Cardinal is the first pope in history to choose the name Francis, who is known as the patron saint of animals and, in contemporary parlance, the focal point for ecological concerns. This choice of the name Francis reflects the pope’s remarkably humble nature.

Contemplating the vastness and wonder of the creation, we cannot help but be humbled by the transience of our own existence. I’m excited about Pope Francis because Pope Francis may just make humility cool again.

Each morning as we pray we ask the questions – “What are we? What is our life? What is our love? What is our righteousness?”- a whole series of questions reminding us to begin our day in a spirit of reflection and humility.

In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we answer these questions- we are like “a shadow crossing over, a passing cloud, a particle of dust, a fleeting dream.” In other words, we have a lot to be humble about, a great challenge as we live in a culture that worships fame. We all crave recognition and affirmation. The High Holidays are that time when we humbly acknowledge our many flaws, seeking patience and forbearance from others as we each recognize our own imperfection.

The Rabbis suggest that those who forgive others will, themselves, be forgiven by God. Contemplating our wrongdoing, we recognize that we are all equal. A favorite Talmudic saying expresses it this way – “I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in town, his is in the field. I rise early for his work and he rises early for his work.” In other words, we should treat every person with respect and recognize that each of us has our own challenges to overcome.

Observers were shocked that the new pope asked others to pray for him, rather than offering his own prayers and that he donned the most simple vestments and scorned the lavish papal apartment in favor of a more humble dwelling.

The midrash imagines that God’s presence was revealed to Moses from a lowly thorn bush in order to remind us that there is no place on earth so humble that God’s spirit is absent. So, too, the spark of God burns within each of our souls, fueling the possibility of teshuvah as we humbly recognize our wrongdoing. With regard to every other trait, Maimonides advocates that we seek the middle path. Between arrogance and humility, he urges us to err on the side of humility, as arrogance is such a universal temptation.

Self-confidence is important, but it’s okay on these High Holy Days to humbly focus on our shortcomings. A great Jewish ethicist tells us that with regard to our material well-being, we should look down, we should recognize how many are our blessings in comparison to others. With regard to our spiritual well-being, we should look up, and recognize how many are the opportunities for spiritual growth. As we join together in the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, let’s take a moment to look down with gratitude and to look up with humility.

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