For many people, one of the most moving parts of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy is the Nesaneh Tokef prayer; which vividly describes the courtroom of judgment and sets the stakes as high as possible – determinations of life, death, and everything in between.
The prayer affirms that on this day, Heaven determines who will live and who will die, and you take a moment to think about who left us too soon this year. Who will suffer, and who will have it easy; you think of your friend who’s had an awful time recently. Who will be well and who will be weak; you think of that terrible diagnosis you heard about.
And yet, for all the severity of judgment, the prayer concludes by throwing it out the window entirely. It’s Judgment Day, and sure, your verdict for the year is set today, and this is the decisive moment. But we loudly proclaim that our fate is, in fact, not fixed at all because of the notion that we can choose to change and grow, because repentance, prayer, and charity can change our fate – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
The word for repentance means homecoming or return; that however lost we may be, we can always find our way back – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means introspection; we can always take stock for an honest self-appraisal, evaluating and redirecting our direction – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice; justice is something humans can create and share with others – צְדָקָה. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, the words we say are all aspects of our lives that we have complete agency and control over.
R’ Micha Berger notes that they parallel the three relationships a person has – charity reflecting our horizontal relationship with each other, prayer reflecting our vertical relationship with God, and repentance reflecting our inner relationship with ourselves.
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur only determines the default trajectory as things stand, but they are not exhaustively binding or rigidly preordained. We can hold on to hope that, ultimately, we can influence and control our destinies.
If you improve one single characteristic, that constitutes a change substantial enough to change and reshape the future.
Mathematics validates the butterfly effect, where small things have non-linear impacts on a complex system, like a butterfly flapping its wings which through ripple effects causes a typhoon. Small things can have a big impact on the future.
Change yourself, change your fate.