Unetaneh Tokef in the “Muddy Middle”

Unetaneh Tokef in the “Muddy Middle”

At the beginning of the pandemic, I happened to be reading a book entitled Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath. It was, and still is, strikingly relevant, since it asks the question, “How can you measure success when success is defined by things not happening?” After all, for COVID-19, we’re looking to see how many people don’t test positive, how many people don’t have to quarantine, how many people don’t die. 

Heath explains why this is so challenging: “Downstream work is easier to see. Easier to measure. There’s a maddening ambiguity about upstream efforts…[E]ven if you feel confident that your efforts accomplished something, you’ll still never know who you helped. You’ll just see some numbers decline on a page. Your victories are stories written in data, starring invisible heroes who save invisible victims.” (p. 6)

For months now, we’ve been making real sacrifices, all in the hopes of preventing things from happening. And since the downsides are clear, apparent and immediate, while the victories are invisible, uncertain and down the road, it’s been really difficult, both emotionally and financially. Usually, we’re at least somewhat willing to sacrifice some pleasure right now for more benefit down the road, like spending less now in order to save for a vacation in a few months, or forgoing that chocolate cake to improve our health. But it’s much harder to have spent months sacrificed seeing friends and family, or summer camp, or even just going out for dinner, and not seeing any real clear benefit. 

This way of looking at decisions has made this year’s Yamim Nora’im particularly tough. Perhaps the quintessential prayer for these holidays is “Unetaneh Tokef,” recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While many of us will focus on the phrasings “who shall live and who shall die” or “who by fire and who by water” or “who by earthquake and who by plague,” there’s another part of the prayer that struck me this year – namely, its opening.

“Let us speak of the sacred power of this day,” it begins, and continues with a list of everything that happens “this day” — God “recalls all that is forgotten,” “the great shofar will be sounded,” “angels will be alarmed,” “all that lives will pass before You,” and, of course, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Fast of Yom Kippur, it is sealed,” listing what fate will befall everyone.

There’s an immediacy to this language. Our actions right now, at this moment, on this day, will have consequences for the whole year to come. While we may struggle with the theology of God knowing everything in advance, we do know that our choices are linked to their consequences. And while there’s a lot of research to suggest that we don’t always do such a good job with that calculation, we at least know that when we make a decision now, we’re also keeping an eye towards the future.

The problem is that during COVID-19, the link between our choices and their consequences has been much more opaque. In July, Maggie Koerth wrote a powerful article for FiveThirtyEight explaining that right now, “Every Decision is a Risk. Every Risk is a Decision.” 

We can’t live like we did before coronavirus. We won’t live like we did immediately after it appeared, either. Instead, we’re in the muddy middle, faced with choices that seem at once crucial and impossible, simple and massively complicated. These choices are an everyday occurrence, but they also carry a moral weight that makes them feel different than picking a pasta sauce or a pair of shoes…[a]nd no one can tell us exactly what we ought to do…

And because of those stakes, we’ve assigned a morality to all these choices — something that psychology researchers have shown leads us to frame things as “all good” or “all bad” and lose sight of the gray areas all around us. We’re all bogged down and floundering, questioning our own goodness while we arch our eyebrows at our friends and argue over whose patch of muck is really solid ground.

Unetaneh Tokef, and the High Holy Days as a whole, appear to frame our choices as yes or no, good or bad, life or death. On this day, our choices carry extra weight, and that binary “who shall live and who shall die,” combined with a sense of immediacy and urgency of our choices, is particularly hard this year because we’re in “the muddy middle” — and we’re likely to be stuck there for a while. It’s hard to live in a world where we feel like we have to think about going to the grocery store, sending our kids to school, or eating in a restaurant as questions of “life and death.” 

But while the perspective of Yamim Nora’im is very stark, we also know that teshuvah is not a simple and linear process. And much of teshuvah and reflection on this past year, and a lot of our success, like combatting COVID-19 and other upstream interventions, is defined by what didn’t happen. Small decisions — like wearing a mask, to help combat COVID-19, or biting back that perfect but cruel retort, as we think about our actions this past year — add up. 

Even in the “before times,” we couldn’t predict the future. Even then, we would have to make trade-offs, and then would make mistakes and would have to balance our own needs with the needs of others. This year is simply a difference of degree and not kind. So as we enter into 5781, perhaps we can celebrate the successes that didn’t happen. Perhaps we can measure our growth by the small things that, collectively, can make a huge impact. Even if we don’t see them, if we don’t know about them, even if those successes are defined by things not happening, our choices can help us grow this year. Even if we’re going to be stuck in the muddy middle for a while.


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