Image: A car accident with the caption, “Who will live and who will die?”
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
The Unetaneh Tokef [“Let Us Tell the Power”] is probably the scariest prayer in the entire liturgy. It begins with a preamble to set the tone, reminding us that even the angels are terrified of the Day of Judgement, which is right now. Judgement Day is not some faraway time, not some mythical other universe, but right here and right now.
Then, before we have a chance to really digest that startling idea, it states an obvious fact that none of us want to think about: we have absolutely no idea who will live to see next year. So that we cannot dodge the thought, it spells it out with the catalogue above in a relentless cadence whether you read it in Hebrew or English: there are many unpleasant ways to die, and we are vulnerable to all of them.
We. Personally. Individually. Are. Going. To. Die.
None of us want to think about it. Ask any attorney who assists people in writing a will. Clients know they are supposed to have one and they don’t want to think about it. They cancel the appointment (“Whoops! I forgot about the dentist appointment!”) they forget the appointment (“Where is my brain???”) they show up to the appointment without important documents, they stall on reviewing it once written, and they don’t like paying the bill for the whole thing either. We human beings resist thinking about our own mortality.
So once a year, the liturgy gets directly in our faces and forces us to think about it. This prayer is a wake-up call.
If I knew for a fact that my life would be over next week:
- What words do I want to say, and to whom, today?
- What messes do I want to clean up, and not leave behind me?
- What will I choose to do with my time in the next week?
- How do I want to be remembered, by family, by friends, by my opponents?
- What is too important to leave undone?
These are the questions of the High Holy Days. Unpleasant as it is, the Unetaneh Tokef grabs us by our lapels and shakes us, reminding us of the obvious: time may be short.
All that said, there are those for whom the words of the prayer dredge up the horror of recent trauma. A Jewish blogger named Deborah who lost her father to suicide describes her decision about this year’s prayer in Why I Will Leave the Room when the Unetaneh Tokef is Recited on the High Holy Days. As a rabbi, I endorse her way of dealing with the prayer in her situation.
I myself nearly died last Yom Kippur. Blood clots in my lungs robbed me of breath and came close to robbing me of life. I don’t know how I will experience the Unetaneh Tokef this year, but my plan is to take lots of Kleenex and hang tough. If I learned anything last year, it was that we must periodically stop and say, “Really, what if I die tomorrow?” because that is reality. So I plan to do it, this year and every year.
You have to decide what’s right for you.
The High Holy Day services are laden with rich experiences: sounds, sights, words, ideas. To whatever degree we can be fully present to them, they will make us more fully present to the rich potential in our lives.
11 thoughts on “The Hardest Prayer in the Book”
Unetaneh Tokef sliced my heart to ribbons last year; Rosh Hashanah came a few months after the death of my mother. I agree, it’s important to realize that some of us in this room this RH will not live to see the next one, and to make sure we don’t leave important things undone. But I find the language of the traditional text unnecessarily cruel, especially to anyone who has suffered a recent loss. It doesn’t just say that we should get our houses in order, after all. It says, quite literally, that G-d is judging each of us and deciding when, and how, we will die, and I find this completely at odds with the Reform movement’s usual explicit rejection of reward/punishment theology. I honestly can’t fathom why we’ve left that in as is but removed so many, many other pieces of liturgy, such as the whole “if you’re bad girls & boys I’ll close the heavens and there won’t be any rain” from the Shema/V’ahavta. No G-d truly worth believing in made an affirmative decision that my mother deserved to suffer as she did, or the child who died of cancer, or the person killed by a drunk driver or the one shot down in cold blood by a police officer. I agree wholeheartedly with the first commenter on this post on the CCAR RavBlog: this is medieval theology which I cannot stomach.
Link to the post I mention above: http://ccarravblog.wpengine.com/?p=955
I am so sorry that the text hurt so badly last year. I wish you comfort among the mourners of our people!
I agree, Patti, the language of the text is shocking and frankly, if I ever lead those services again, I will invite mourners to take a break before we read them.
Deuteronomic theology (“If you are bad I will punish you, and if you are good you are protected”) is one of the theologies in Jewish tradition, but as you point out, we have many more ideas about theodicy (where God is when bad things happen.) I engage with that in the next post (https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/2016/09/28/life-is-unfair-now-what/). For sure, these are not easy texts.
I’m culturally but not religiously Jewish. Therefore, I am unaware of this prayer.
However, this summer I spent a lot of time wrestling with my plans for burial, e.g., should I be buried in one cemetery or the other. That led me back to the synagogue and for the past 6 weeks, I have immersed myself in Jewish life rather than Jewish death.
I’m at the point where I am going to shul regularly (there are two nearby, so I’m sampling both) and will be attending Rosh Hashanah services. This is after not going to synagogue for 20 years (and never before that).
Now I want to learn even more about this prayer.
Debra, I hope you have a wonderful process learning about Jewish tradition! If you want to learn more about this text, I’ve written a post about resources and books for learning about the High Holy Days: https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/2016/08/21/books-to-prepare-for-the-high-holy-days/
Thanks for reading! If you have specific questions, I hope that you’ll let me know!