One of the major highlights of Ashkenazic Rosh HaShanah davening is UNetaneh Tokef, a prayer in which we express the idea that everything is in the hands of Hashem. We explain that Hashem will judge the fate of all mankind on Rosh HaShanah. This Tefillah is very confusing. Is it implying that after the judgment, there's no hope, that no matter what we do the next year, Hashem will allot to us whatever punishments He decrees on Rosh HaShanah?
The Gemara (Avodah Zara 17a) relates a very peculiar story. It talks about a man, Elazar ben Durdia, who slept with every prostitute in the world. He once heard about a particular famous and expensive prostitute in a city overseas. Right before he cohabited with the woman, she remarked that there was no way Elazar would ever receive Teshuva if he went through with this act. Elazar was heartbroken and distraught, and immediately went outside and asked the mountains and other parts of the earth to pray for him. However, none of them would agree to intercede for him. Upon realizing that no one else would pray for him, he cried and sat in the fetal position and cried so much that he died. A heavenly voice thereupon announced that Elazar had received a share in Olam Haba and earned the title of “Rabbi”. The Tanaaim comment on this story that a person can turn around his life in just one moment no matter how deeply he has fallen into sin. As we say right after UNetaneh Tokef, “UTeshuva, UTefillah, UTzedaka Maavirin Et Roa HaGezeira,” “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.” In other words, Hashem does decide what will happen to us but repentance, prayer, and charity can change the decision completely. Hashem realizes that people change and allows room to annul the decrees He makes.
This idea is an integral part of our religious ideology. In Sefer Melachim, Eliyahu HaNavi goes through very difficult times and is eventually forced to flee to the desert to escape King Achav and his wife Izevel, who seek to kill him. Eliyahu becomes so frustrated that he claims that the people are corrupt and there is no hope for them because and that they have abandoned the Brit (Melachim I 19:14-15). Hashem thereupon commands him to appoint a new leader, Elisha, in essence declaring that Eliyahu has been fired. It is impossible for Eliyahu to be a leader of the Jewish people because he does not believe that there is any hope for them because they abandoned the Brit. Incidentally, this is why Eliyahu is forced to be present at every Brit Milah and Pesach Seder; he is forced to bear witness that in fact Bnei Yisrael have not abandoned the Brit. We too must recognize that no matter how far we have gone astray or how deeply our bad habits are ingrained within us, there is always room to change.
-Adapted from a shiur by Mr. Moshe Glasser