Holiday poem
The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, in 100 words

Everyday I write the book

Tonight after services, several of us clustered around a table in one of the CBI classrooms to learn a little bit about the liturgy for the Days of Awe. We focused on a prayer I've always found fascinating: the Unetaneh Tokef.

This prayer makes use of a central metaphor of the Days of Awe -- God as King/Judge -- to show us a pageant in which every living being passes before God as a flock of sheep passes before its shepherd. Here is the Book of Remembrance which speaks for itself, for each of us has signed it with our deeds. And here we read that "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:" who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who tormented, who shall be humbled and who exalted.

But "teshuvah, u-tefilah, u-tzedakah" (repentance/returning, prayer, and deeds of righteousness) can avert the severity of the degree. From there, the prayer reminds us that God desires not our death but our redemption. Man, it says, is "like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream." In stark contrast: God, eternal and everlasting, who has linked our names with the Holy Name.

This prayer is a motif, repeating throughout the Days of Awe. As a poem, it has tremendous power. (Man, I wish I could claim to have written something with this kind of majesty and resonance.) But as a path to God, it can be problematic for many modern Jews.

One of the problems some of us have with Unetaneh Tokef is the implication that destiny might be an indicator of goodness. If God is deciding who shall live and who shall die -- and if righteousness and teshuvah and prayer can avert the severity of the decree -- does that suggest that those who die in painful or lingering ways are insufficiently righteous? I strongly resist that theology; I think it's untenable and frankly appalling. (So appalling, in fact, that though the internet is rife with examples of it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I'm not going to link to any, because I don't want to give them the google juice.)

Fortunately, I don't think that's what the prayer is saying. It doesn't offer that kind of simplistic moral calculus. Instead I see here that some of us will prosper and some will suffer (seems undeniable, really) and that tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can "avert the severity of the decree" -- not "change the laws of the universe," not "prevent suffering and death," but soften whatever is on its way. This hearkens back to the old question of whether prayer works. I'd argue that it does -- but we need to be praying for the right things.  Prayer, repentance, and righteousness won't change the human condition, but they can help us deal with it gracefully and with more joy.

Another issue I've heard people take with the prayer is the notion that God decides the content of one's coming year during the Days of Awe, as though everything in the year to come were foreordained. Admittedly, that's one way to read the Unetaneh Tokef...but fortunately I think other readings are possible, and I think the text of the prayer itself argues against seeing ourselves as pawns, powerless in the face of predestination.

In the opening paragraph we read about the Book of Remembrance which "speaks for itself" (or which "reads itself," in some translations), as each of us has signed it with our deeds. God opens the Book, but we're the ones who write it. And though the prayer describes a dire set of circumstances that might arise in the coming year, it stresses that we have the power to affect our future -- that through the combination of prayer, righteousness, and the genuine desire to turn our lives around, we can link our names (fleeting and ephemeral though they may be) with the Great Name which endures forever. Hooray for personal agency. 

Of the J-blog posts I've read on the Unetaneh Tokef, my favorite comes from Naomi Chana, who tackled this one back in '03. Her post delves into the prayer's histories (real and apocryphal) and includes excellent lines like, "I don't think Unetaneh Tokef has to be read as a quasi-Calvinist hymn to an angry God unless you really, really want to read it that way." Yeah. What she said.

If its implications are uncomfortable for you -- if the dominant metaphor distances you, or just doesn't feel relevant -- try simply listening to it as you would to a poem. Marvel at its rhythm and assonance and symbolism. While the words wash over you, think about what you've written in the Book of Remembrance in the last year, and what you might seek to write differently in the coming year. Don't get caught up in intellectualizing the prayer; curl up inside it, instead, and let the metaphor surround you.

Or try interpreting the talk of "death" the way tarot readers interpret the death card: as transformation. Think about how your transformations and changes will happen in the coming year: will they be stormy or tranquil? Raging like fire, or gentle like water on stone? Will your choices make you feel deadened, or enlivened? Will your changes weigh you down, or lift you up? And how could the trio of prayer (the service of the heart), repentance (truly turning yourself toward the Source of All) and righteousness (right action, walking in right paths, acting in ways that align you with the Most High) change the way you experience the coming year?

Above all, remember that the Days of Awe are meant to cleanse us of the karmic and emotional detritus of the year now ending. The idea isn't to dwell on our shortcomings forever, or to spend all our time quaking at the prospect of celestial smiting, but to make an honest accounting of ourselves and our actions in order to come away with a clean slate. Ultimately, this prayer reminds us, God is "beyond explanation;" this set of metaphors is one way to approach that unknowable reality, but in the end it's just a human construct, as all of our words for God are.

Unetaneh Tokef is a chance to stand before the aspect of God which remembers everything we've forgotten about ourselves. It's an opportunity to know that we've been seen fully, and that when we walk away we'll be writing the next chapter of the Book of Remembrance, so we'd better choose our words with care.

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