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UNETANEH TOKEF
YOM KIPPUR 5772-2011

When Rabbi Bradley Artson was our Scholar-in-Residence last fall, his presentation about God was generally, albeit not universally, well-received. In particular, his claim that the concept of an infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, infinitely benevolent, God, who presides over the world as we experience it, is self-contradictory made a strong impression.  With that point in mind, and having heard from Rabbi Artson that the Conservative movement had published a new High Holiday mahzor, Lev Shalem, some people asked me if the new mahzor would delete the piyyut “Unetaneh Tokef,” which we say before the Musaf kedushah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

The answer, of course, is “No”. A traditional mahzor would not omit Unetaneh Tokef any more than it would omit Kol Nidre. Neither selection has any halakhic mandate, both have problematic texts, and both have a very strong hold on people’s emotions. What the new mahzor, Lev Shalem does is to accompany the poem with various explanations and counterpoints.  As I speak about Unetaneh Tokef, I shall refer to some of them.

One of the major issues in Unetaneh Tokef, one which hits us in the face, is the assertion, which we use as a refrain in the recitation of the poem “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed, (B’rosh Hashanah yikatevun, uv’yom tzom kippur yehatemun)”  This passage is based on the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a, where we read, “Rabbi Judah said, “People are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and their verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur.’” 

Is our fate really determined in a 10 day period?  Actually, there are other views represented in that Talmudic passage. The Talmud goes on: “Rabbi Yose said, ‘People are judged everyday, as it is said (Job 7:18), “You notice him every morning’” Rabbi Nathan said, ‘People are judged every moment, as it is said (ibid.), “You try him every moment”

I am inclined to say that every moment of our lives includes both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: our responsibility before God, our awareness of our responsibility, and the possibility of changing, of doing things better, and of becoming better people.  Alternatively, we may say that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent our entire lives. Like the world, which has its birthday on Rosh Hashanah, we come into the world as new creatures. On Yom Kippur, we “rehearse” for our deaths, so to speak, not eating or drinking, and wrapping ourselves in white. Only the end of our lives marks the end of our chances to repent. Indeed, as our poem has it, “You wait for [a person] until the day of his death.”

A related Talmudic passage, which underlies the theme of the Book of Life and the other book, is at Rosh Hashanah 16b:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for the intermediate. The completely righteous are immediately written down in the Book of Life. The completely wicked are immediately written down in the Book of Death.  The sentence of the intermediate is suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur."

I have already addressed the problem of the Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur time frame. The image of the Books of Life and Death is also disturbing. Rabbi Jan Urbach of Long Island, in a teleconference on Unetaneh Tokef which she conducted for the Rabbinical Assembly this year, made use of a teaching of the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, to present the issue in a different way. The Netivot Shalom wrote that the three books which are opened are three blank books, and that we fill in the contents during the year that is to come.  Rabbi Urbach combined that understanding with the more straightforward one, that the books represent verdicts on the past, to point out (what is obvious once it is said) that some parts of our lives are within our control and some parts are not within our control.  Once we acknowledge that fact, we shall presumably want to focus on the parts that are within our control, by living better lives, lives more focused on enduring values, in the year to come.

Now, there is a little gap between Rabbi Urbach’s distinction between things which we can control and things which we cannot, and the way in which the author of Unetaneh Tokef (who, by the way, is now believed to have been the 5th or 6th century poet Yannai and not the 10th century Rabbi Amnon of Mainz) presents the matter. For our poet, everything is under the control of God.  Like Rabbis Urbach and Artson, I have a problem with the idea that everything is determined by God. In fact, I don’t believe that anything is bashert, really, not anything. I don’t use the expression “bashert” except in completely conventional contexts. Some things are determined by us, and then there is a whole swath of our experience which seems to operate in – I will not say a random way, but in - an impersonal way. 

But does God have nothing to do with the world? I am not quite so heretical as to say that. I believe that God’s influence on the world takes two forms. One, as I have said on many occasions, including on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, involves us. When we heed God’s teachings and act on them, then God is acting in the world through us. But I believe that there is something more as well. I would subscribe to the statement, associated with Martin Luther King but apparently first made by the 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

It seems to me that our poem, moving as it does towards two climaxes, addresses some of the concerns which are among the themes of the High Holidays.  We may unite these themes under the fancy heading “existential anxiety”.  We are anxious, first of all, about our very lives. So many things can happen to us! While some people tend to dismiss the list of misfortunes in the poem as medieval, in fact, all of those things still happen to people.  Our poem may not include the top causes of mortality in 21st century America, but it is no stretch to understand those as included in the very long list.  Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death, and we may imagine that science and good planning will keep death at bay, but, in some part of ourselves, we know that that is not the case. Even though I shall go on to speak of other kinds of anxiety, I do not want at all to minimize our anxiety about simply living.

Besides simply living, we worry about the quality of our lives. We often use the expression “quality of life” to refer to issues such as absence of pain and ability to perform everyday functions, and those are extremely important matters. However, I would like to go beyond them and to summarize the quality of life with the expression attributed to Freud, “love and work,” that is, satisfying human relationships and productive activities.

Third, we worry about living worthy lives.  It is so easy to do wrong, to let our worse selves take over, to choose morally compromised convenience, to give in to anger, jealously, physical or material temptation – all the things which produce the actions which we list today in alphabetical order, with the preface “Al het shehatanu l’fanekha” (For the sin which we have committed before You) Fourth, encompassing all the other anxieties, but going, I think, beyond them, we worry about the ultimate meaning of our lives. Even if we continue to live for another year, even if we enjoy our relationships and our work, even if we are reasonably good people, does it really mean anything? (We may think, in this connection, of the meaning of the life and work of Steve Jobs.)  Are we, as we live, carving for ourselves a monument more lasting than bronze? 

The first climax of the poem, “Uteshuvah, utefillah utzedakah ma-avirin et ro-a ha-gezerah” (Repentance, prayer, and charity help the harshness of the decree pass) addresses our anxiety about the quality and meaning of our lives and about our moral worthiness.  Repentance, prayer, and charity, an inner change leading to actions which repair our relationships with God and with other people, make our lives better in all of those ways. To return to Rabbi Urbach’s distinction between things which are in our control and things which are not, these are certainly things which are in our control.

After “Uteshuvah utefillah” etc., we move back into a dark mode, as we read  “[People’s] origin is from dust, and their end is dust. At their peril gathering food, they are like shattered pottery, like withered glass and like a faded blossom”  The second climax, “V’attah hu melekh El hai v’kayam” (But You are the Sovereign, living and ever-present God), provides a contrast to our lowly state. However, I believe that what follows, the actual conclusion of the poem (which is not in our current mahzor but is in Lev Shalem) represents another response to our existential anxiety.   “Your name [God] befits You, as You befit Your name, and You have linked Your name with ours.”  We may be shattered pottery and withered grass, but God graciously makes it possible for us to connect with Him. That connection with the transcendent adds meaning to our lives, and enables us, not to cancel, but partly to go beyond, our human limitations. 

Let me mention now two of the selections which are in the margins of Lev Shalem, beside Unetaneh Tokef.  One is a reading by Rabbis Stanley Rabinowitz ,  Shamai Kanter, and Jack Riemer,  “When we really begin a new year it is decided, and when we actually repent it is determined”. This reading  addresses the problematic focus on three days out of the year by displacing the thought of the poem elsewhere. In fact, it makes the time frame completely subjective; everything depends on what we do.  The good and bad outcomes are similarly modified. Instead of being strangled or stoned (two of the forms of execution in the Talmud), we may be “strangled by insecurity” or “stoned into submission”. Instead of being rich or poor, we may be “poor in [our] own eyes” or “rich in tranquility”.  Instead of living or dying, we may “be truly alive” or “merely exist”.

The second, a note by Rabbi Leonard Gordon, makes some of the same points that I have made today: We are not praying to be spared an ending in death. We are not even asking that death be postponed.  (I must add parenthetically that most of the contemporary commentators dismiss the concern with living through the new year.  That dismissal is understandable, because whether we shall live or die is largely not within our control. However, I think that it is necessary to recognize that the anxiety about living is part of what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about. Not only in Unetaneh Tokef, but all through our prayers, we give voice to that anxiety.)  Rather, after reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways in which our life might end, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah. Our goal is not security, but a life of meaning that recognizes our vulnerability but rises above it.

Rabbi Noa Kushner, in her contribution to a book on Unetaneh Tokef edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, points out that liturgy is not just printed words; it is experience.  Having the poem in our mahzorim means that part of our experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is dealing with its themes of death, life, the meaning of life, and our connection to God.  Dealing with those themes is not always comfortable, but it is something which we must do.

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