Unetanah Tokef: Not By Me Alone

ImageIt’s been a difficult week. It’s not just the normal Rosh HaShannah / Yom Kippur crazyness with school beginningImage in the midst of it all. This year, the anniversary of 9/11 landed right in the middle of the two holidays. For me, 9/11 is the day that I remember my friend Steve Jacobson, a true tzadik, along with all those others who were senselessly murdered on that day. So the closeness of the dates, just as in 2001, does not make it easy to read the Unetanah Tokef.

Unetanah Tokef, is added to the repetition of the musaf service just before the Kedushah on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. This piyyut–liturgical poem–which is thought to date to the 11th century, describes God as the judge and prosecuter for our acts and the sentence that will be served. While teshuvah (changing our ways), tzedakah (righteous giving), and tefillah (sincere prayer) can avert or lessen the severity of the decree, the decrees are horrendous.

Who will live and who will die.

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

who will perish by fire and who by water;

who by sword and who by beast;

who by hunger and who by thirst;

who by earthquake and who by plague.”

The list is a bit mind boggling. And after 9/11, I could not hear this. I could not conceive that my friend would perish by fire in some sort of divine plan. Here was a person who would at times work all night and then go to the synagogue in the morning to open up for minyan. Here was a father and husband. Could it be that this was his destiny and the destiny of so many others?

So I began to leave the room for Unataneh Tokef if I was not leading the service. That changed this Rosh HaShannah. Recently, I heard one of my favorite teachers, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, speak on this prayer and I realized that I had been looking at it all wrong. It wasn’t that each victim had earned their fate. Stuff happens and we have the opportunity to change it. And when we do good, we don’t necessarily change it for us. Prayer is not a direct call and response. It is only part of the formula. Maybe it’s the “pay it forward” idea. Maybe there is some universal karma that all sucks up all of our deeds and balances them out. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s not just about me. I am part of something bigger and I must do so others can have.

So I wonder, what we can do.

Teshuvah: Can we turn around by looking inside and returning to our essence, stripping away the flash and superficial stuff in our lives and concentrating on who we are and what we are made of?

Tefillah: Can we use our prayer to be introspective and motivate us to action?

Tzedakah: Can we use our resources, both financial and physical, to help change the world? Can we be generous with our goodness throughout the world? Can we see our interactions with others as sacred?

Cantor Dreskin suggested that we each have a secret mitzvah. Can we do without anyone knowing about it?

It is said that with the ne’ilah service tomorrow night, the gates are closing, although the rabbis give us a reprieve until the end of Sukkot on HoShanah Rabbah. I prefer to think of the gates as a revolving door. There are constantly new opportunities for doing good coming at us. It’s up to us to choose when we will grab hold of the door and go on through.

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
This entry was posted in Tefillah (prayer) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unetanah Tokef: Not By Me Alone

  1. Pat says:

    The fire in Seaside Heights/Seaside Park took no lives, although a lot of property was destroyed. Maybe their collective good deeds in rebuilding after Sandy helped mitigate some other decree.

  2. Beth says:

    Thank you, Gail, for your words. They are thoughtful and have given me a challenge!

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