Friday, September 16, 2005

Unetaneh Tokef

As I mentioned in the audio post below during this time of year it is common practice for Jews to become more reflective about themselves and their place in the world around them. I think that it is a very important task and one that is necessary if you are going to continue to grow as a person.

There is a prayer called "Unetaneh Tokef" that is said on Rosh Hashanah that always catches me as I am sure that it does many others. There are a couple of different stories that I have heard about its origins. Here are links to two of them. As you can see they are intense.

But I want to focus on a couple of things that we say in the prayer itself that I think are of interest.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe old age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;
Repentance, Prayer, and Charity temper judgment's severe decree.
Those are some pretty heavy concepts, so I am going to post about the first section and then then comment on the second.

As a young boy whenever we said Unetaneh Tokef I always pictured a very old man at a desk. There was a book a quill and some ink that the man used to write in the book. I remember thinking that it would be very hard for the man to hear me and that his head must really hurt because all these people were trying to speak to him.

I can also remember wondering if he really knew about all the things that I had done. Did he know that I had managed to sneak candy into my room even though my mom had said no. Did he know that sometimes at night when I was supposed to be in bed I would sneak into the hallway and listen to whatever show my parents were watching.

Or was he aware that Teddy Holtz had found a magazine with pictures of nude girls and we were looking at it. As an adult I laugh at that memory. We were about 8 years-old and we thought that the people in the magazine were really stupid. Because who would sit naked on the back of a motorcycle. You would get really cold and if you fell off you'd get really scraped up.

I can remember the superstitions of the older people, the whispers and gestures they made to ward off the evil eye, the hands they clamped over our ears during certain times.

All these memories jumble together because I took Unetaneh Tokef literally, even though I had some doubts about the power of G-d in the end I was afraid that he really did know everything and that something bad could happen. In short, it was a very black and white interpretation.

Now I look at Unetaneh Tokef and I think of it in broader terms and I understand that section to be more comment than literal because the reality is that I cannot make the decision of who will die and who will live for myself or for anyone others. Those decisions are out of my hands and it is important for us as people to be aware that what we do, the choices we make impact others.

This leads into the second part where it says:
Repentance, Prayer, and Charity temper judgment's severe decree.
Please note that I am using English translations so that more people can read this, I don't usually translate Tzedakah as Charity. It is usually more like Righteousness but there is a lot more to that discussion than this so for simplicities sake we'll use charity.

In the past when I have engaged in learning about this line some people have discussed these as three separate concepts and it bothers me to hear Tshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah handled as separate units relative to this conversation. The reason being is that Unetaneh Tokef is a personal discussion with G-d in which we praise and tremble. It is a time to consider our own actions and I find it troubling to suggest that one could merit another year of life simply based upon tefilah/prayer.

Because if we are saying that we have done wrong and that we wish to engage in tshuvah, repentance then I think that it must include the act of tshuvah. I find fault with the idea that one could ignore tshuvah and simply daven. There is a lack of responsibility and personal accountability that irks me.

So I don't see how you can separate prayer from repentance. They are two pieces that work together. Tzedakah is a different story. One can give without repenting or prayer. You could easily make a donation to charity xyz without the other two components.

On a personal note I follow the Rambam's example of how to give.

That is it for now, perhaps I'll share more thoughts later.


asher said...

You are right..the prayer is very haunting and since I have only been to ashkenazi shuls all my life the tune is akin to a death march. I understand that in many conservative and reform shuls they have changed the wording regarding the ways someone might meet their end during the year.

The part that always haunted me, (among others) is "all of humanity goes under scrutiny like sheep passing under the shephard's rod" and each is judged.

What did we do last year that was so bad? What did we do that would make us deserve not to be put into the book of life for the coming year?

Jack Steiner said...


If you take it literally it is nothing short of frightening.

Unknown said...

This post has been included in Haveil Havalim #39, hosted by SerandEz - take a few minutes and check what it says. Shana Tova!

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Anonymous said...

In past years I took the Unetanah Tokef as a figurative prayer but this year for the first time it is literal one for me: I await the new in a new grandchild, I ponder my own existence without the assurance that I will be here to do so again next year. This should be frightening and in a way it is, yet it is reassurance that in the end we cannot fight that which will surely be. This means that time is extra precious now and the strength we have must be devoted to life as long as it is ours.