I could not help but keep looking over at my son Elan during the early part of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah to do a visual check-in. He looked fine on the outside but I could not know what was going through his head. The ark was open and the ba’al tefilah was chanting the words of the U’Netanah Tokef:
Let us speak of the sacred power of this day - profound and awe inspiring.
The ba’al tefilah continued as the texts invoked images of God as Judge and Prosecutor, Expert and Witness, seated on the Divine Seat of Justice, reviewing each of our lives, deciding our fates and sealing them in ספר החיים - The Book of Life. The voice of the community joined in:
On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!
I looked even more intently at Elan with increasing concern as we reached the next portion of this powerful and challenging prayer:
כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן
מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת.
מִי בְקִצּו וּמִי לא בְקִצּו
מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ
How many will pass on and how many will be born;
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...
This summer, Elan and his friends experienced mourning and mortality when a peer passed away. My instinct was to put my arm my son and hug him. Through the entire U’Netaneh Tokef, Elan stood ramrod straight and looked, stoically, straight ahead. When Kedushah finally ended and we sat down, I asked him how he was and he told me he was fine. Throughout the rest of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and during this period of reflection and teshuvah, I spent a lot of time thinking about this particular text knowing that both he and I would confront it once again on Yom Kippur.
A fascinating history of the tefillah, as well as reflections on some of its theological implications, was written several years ago by Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute and can be found at http://www.schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=19. This year, the prayer presented more personal challenges, among them:
Must I read the U’Netaneh Tokef literally or can I read it as metaphor for the fragility of life?
To what extent do I believe that there is a causal relationship between actions and consequences?
Are there really two or three things that, if done during the year, negate the consequences of previous poor choices?
If this is a text that does not fit in with my intellectual outlook should I simply not say it? Ignore it? Should I write it off to certain historical contexts that no longer apply?
As human beings, we are often inclined to ignore difficult texts. Rather than struggle with things we don’t like or with which we disagree, we skip over them or pretend they don’t exist. And in the polarized society in which we live, we often avoid talking about difficulties with those with whom we disagree. We surround ourselves in the cocoon of like-minded people precluding the need to struggle with others, with different approaches over the meaning of the text. Deep insight comes through interacting with people we disagree with, when we listen genuinely. We learn about ourselves, we clarify, we grow, and we sometimes change as a result of the encounter with the challenging text or the other’s perspective.
Over the years, my personal tendency with difficult texts has been to continue to say them, to struggle with them and, hopefully, to discover meaning and personal connection with them. And so it is with U’Netaneh Tokef. In my examining different commentaries on the text, I happened upon a powerful insight by Rabbi Leonard Gordon in Mahzor Lev Shalem, the new Mahzor of the Rabbinical Assembly. About the U’Netaneh Tokef, Rabbi Gordon writes:
“Most of us prefer to deny the unruliness of our fragility. But the facts on this list in U’Netanah Tokef are inescapable: some will get sick; some will be born; there will be deaths by hunger and by wars. The liturgy begs us to pay attention to these plain facts...After reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways that life might end, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through t’shuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. Our goal is not security but a life of meaning that recognizes our vulnerability but rises beyond it.”
For Rabbi Gordon, for me at times, and for many others, the list of life statuses and endings in U’Netaneh Tokef reminds us that life is fragile, that there is always an end, and that we don’t know when it will come or why.
A close reading of the tefillah provides another perspective. Such a reading yields an important point revealed in the refrain which says that “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!” This sentence, the one we can almost hear in the form of the congregation singing, does not specify who does the writing or the sealing. It is just as possible to read this as a text about how we create our own different endings and beginnings. This is not the peshat, the simple, intended meaning of the text. Yet, I can both imagine God sitting in judgement and, at the same time, hold myself responsible for the consequences of my actions. And so in thinking about U’Netaneh Tokef this year, I find myself wondering:
What parts of my soul did I neglect this year?
What bridges did I burn?
What new ideas did I have that I suppressed out of fear?
What regrets do I have that I continue to carry, allowing them to disturbme instead of reflecting, praying, learning and then releasing them?
What can I do to be at Peace, to be whole, to be “serene” and “tranquil”?
How can I work to be more fully alive in this coming year?
These types of questions require serious thought and serious answers. U’Netaneh Tokef raises questions about ultimate endings and beginnings and our responsibility for the outcomes of our choices. The tefillah demands that we consider the beginnings and endings of daily living and of interactions with both God and with humanity.
On the eve of the most solemn and sacred day in our calendar, I pray that this be a year when we recognize how we can be more at peace with ourselves, with our loved ones, with others and with God. I pray that this be a year of good health and long life, of happiness and peace; that this be a year of supporting and being supported by others. I pray to have the strength to stand at Musaf on Yom Kippur, to encounter the U’Netaneh Tokef and, rather than feeling that it is all out of my hands, that I be inspired and emboldened to live ever more fully in this world.
I look forward to the insights I will gain from hearing what my children, Elan, Mira, Amalya, and my wife, Becca,see and feel in this challenging tefillah. Finally, I invite you to share your reactions to the U’Netaneh Tokef in general and, specifically, to the approach suggested here and to the questions raised by such an approach.
Shabbat Shalom, G’mar Chatimah Tova, and wishes for a meaningful fast for all.