Linda Hirschhorn
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Unetaneh Tokef (5765)

© 2004..2009 Linda Hirschhorn

Delivered at Temple Beth Sholom - San Leandro

In just a little while we will chant one of the most powerful and difficult of all the High Holiday prayers, Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer which embodies the central myth of these Days of Awe as days of judgment.

Some of the prayer is as follows:

"We acknowledge the awesome power of this day, its pure sanctity ... you are judge and prosecutor ... What is forgotten is remembered and recorded and borne witness to; All deeds are signed and sealed by every human being ...

The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard... The angels are in terror, for judgment is to be decreed against the inhabitants of both heaven and earth."

Our sense of doom grows as we are told:

"On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who will live and who will die, who will perish by fire and who by water, who by sword, who by hunger and who by earthquake, who will be poor and who will be rich ... etc. With Repentance and Prayer and Righteous Acts we can transform the severity of the decree."

Tradition, or rather legend, ascribes Unetaneh Tokef to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, who composed it as he lay dying in martyrdom about 1000 years ago. For years, the local Bishop had been pressuring him to convert to Christianity. One particular time, about a week before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked for three days to think it over, hoping to find a way to stop the Bishop trying to force him. When he got home, he was horrified that he had given the impression that he might abandon his faith. He didn't go back, and after the three days, the Bishop sent people to bring the Rabbi to him.

"Why did you not come?" asked the Bishop.

"My tongue should be cut off for suggesting I might leave my faith", answered the Rabbi.

"Not at all, your tongue was right!" said the Bishop. "It's your legs that have sinned, by not coming to me." His men cut off Rabbi Amnon's legs and hands, and put him on a stretcher to be sent home to his wife.

A few days later, on Rosh Hashanah, R. Amnon was carried to shul. Just before the Kedushah prayer, he asked to be carried up to the bimah in front of the Ark. "Let me sanctify the Holy Name", he pleaded. He then recited this prayer and died.

The dark details of this story do not make this prayer easier to absorb.

What makes this prayer so powerful? At first glance it seems to offer a simplistic notion of punishment and reward and perhaps even to deny free will. Some of us will die by fire, by water, by earthquake, some of us won't. Our fate feels arbitrary; We become terrified for ourselves, for our children; We don't know what will happen or when, but it's all written down in a book and at best all we can hope for is to mitigate the severity of our fate by living lives of repentance, prayer and tsedakah. Unetaneh Tokef seems to be a prayer whose purpose is to fill us with dread; to compel us to lead repentant, righteous lives.

But I don't really think that's the case. I believe Rabbi Amnon meant to inspire us. The prayer is a call - an awakening: "Uveshofar Gadol Ye'etakah," "The Great Shofar is Sounded". We are awakened by the loud blast of the great shofar to, paradoxically, the still, small voice within us. It's as if we need a shock to our system to hear a voice that is usually drowned out in the noise and hubbub of daily distractions. The still, small voice says: "Stop! Look at yourselves and your world! " It is the voice that reminds us that today and every day is a day for for re-inventing ourselves, for reordering our priorities, for rebirth and renewal. While the Unetaneh Tokef seems to be an inventory about the ways we might die, I would suggest that the prayer actually challenges us to examine how we are living. In fact it give us the prescription on how to live. By reading it this way we can approach this prayer with excitement rather than trepidation.

For prayer is poetry, and our long tradition of interpretations requires of us to dig deeply beyond the simplest meanings of words. The Talmud tells us that in order to truly understand a text we must "turn it and turn it to find everything in it." So, with the permission of the ages and sages, let us explore some of the metaphors of the Unetaneh Tokef. As I do so I will keep returning to one central question - a question I will answer later on.

We read: "Who will perish by fire, who by water, etc." Let's turn these questions on their head, for to ask who will die by these means implies who will live by these means. And that it is indeed necessary to do so. So when the prayer asks who will die by fire, let us ask who will live by fire. In other words, who will live and how can we live with the burning fires of passion, excitement and inspiration?

I am often introduced as a singer/songwriter/activist. What's meant by the word activist?: It's usually used to describe someone who wants to help change the world. I expressed this by participating in demonstrations protesting war, nuclear power, rallying for peace, etc. In other words, I defined activism in political terms. But I would like to suggest that this word has more depth and resonance, and is critical to our understanding of the prayer today. To live by fire means we must all call ourselves activists. Activism is not only about current events; To be an activist is to be excited and engaged by daily challenges. To participate in every moment by living at the very heart of your own life.

This includes and goes way beyond politics. As Ghandi said, "We must be the change we want to see in the world." We are all activists - agents of our own change.

To live by fire means that we are actively passionate about our friends, our families, the neighborhood we live in, the food we eat, the work we do with our hands or with our minds. However, the prayer asks: Who will perish by fire? So we ask who becomes too consumed with their passions that they lose touch with the needs of those around them; or who becomes too consumed with their passions to the point of exhaustion, and then, as the phrase says, "burns out?" So our central question is: How do we stay balanced? How do we integrate our passions and needs? our impulses and fears? How do we live by fire and yet avoid burnout?

The prayer then asks: "Who by water?"
So let me ask, Are you the captain and navigator of your own boat? Are you waiting for your ship to come in, or are you at the helm making sure it comes in?

Or are you adrift, being pulled by the tides, drifting in the wake of others' comings and goings? Do you feel like you are drowning in too much busyness, and have lost some of the essence of joy? Are you inundated with so much information that you've lost the ability to make clear, conscious decisions about your life?

We therefore ask our larger question: How do we manage to stay afloat, and not drown in the unpredictable oceans of life? How do we keep our balance?

"Who by the sword?"
We are all born with certain strengths. Do we use our strengths for what matters most in our lives? Do we think incisively and clearly - can we cut through the daily pettiness that surrounds us? Do we hone our own particular talents - as homemaker, scientist, artist, to be the best that we each can possibly be, or do we accept the most dull, mediocre version of ourselves?

Do we use the sharpness of our minds to write and say things that hurt or things that are helpful?

Are we willing to fight for justice?

Do we or the people we are closest to live with violence in thoughts, words, or actions? Have we cut ourselves off from our community - are we cut off from the deepest part of ourselves?

How do we manage to stay in touch with our talents and put them to good use; How do we keep from striking out when we are frustrated. How do we stay connected to ourselves and others?

"Who by hunger?"
Do we eat in a way that sustains us and keeps us healthy, or do we overeat from boredom and depression? Are we sufficiently nurtured and do we nourish and nurture others?

Do we remember our responsibility to feed the hungry and house the homeless? The Yom Kippur haftarah portion from Isaiah tells us "Give to the hungry your bread, and to the outcast bring them home, and only then will a healing quickly flourish."

"Who by earthquake?"
So, have you had enough earth-shattering experiences in your life? These are not as rare and as remote as you might think. You might find it by looking at the people you love the most: your children are earth shattering creations. The sunset and sunrise at Mt. Tam is earth shattering, and so is listening closely to a Mozart concerto or the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song.

Take a walk home by a different street and notice how amazing the flowers smell, or what the ground looks like after the rain. Perhaps we or someone close to us needs a jolt out of daily lassitude. When too much of our day becomes a habit we lose touch with the glory of the smallest of things.

"Who will be poor, who will be rich?"
Ibn Ezra said that friendship is a person's greatest gift. Are you rich in friends or poor? Are you too busy to nurture your friendships? Or do friends take up so much of your time that you forget your own needs?

So now we must answer the question of how to arrive at balance. How de we live by fire but not get consumed by it? How do we chart the oceans of life and not drown in them? How do we sustain our connection to each other and to the world and not lose our own sense of purpose?

This question is answered by the prayer itself: While the prayer acknowledges the reality that our lives must end in death and that we may suffer the consequences of the imbalances of our life, it tells us that teshuvah, tefilah and tsedakah are the the centering, stabilizing forces that not only mitigate life's harsh decree but keep us on course, and indeed help us avert a psychological death as we live in the fullness of our lives.

In fact, this is what distinguishes this prayer from the Catholic Requiem Mass, which some say the Unetaneh Tokef was developed in response to and as a rebuttal to, since it was making inroads into the Jewish community during the Middle Ages. In the Mass, forgiveness and redemption take place after death and only through what was believed as divine intercession. The Unetaneh Tokef teaches that we don't need an intercessor - that with repentance, prayer, and acts of kindness while we live, we can change the nature of the final decree before we die.

Let us examine more closely, then, teshuvah, tefilah, and tsedakah, and answer our question of how do we keep our balance.

Let's start with Prayer, Tefilah:
Prayer in Jewish tradition by and large takes place within the context of community. In the legend, Rabbi Amnon recited his prayer in the synagogue, in the midst of his people, and not at home alone. We've all experienced the strength, comfort and joy that is to be found in a community coming together to pray. Through community prayer we reinforce each other's central beliefs and values. A community offers the possibility of pulling us back from an emotional abyss; and by helping diminish pain and anxiety we regain our balance in life.

Sometimes our automatic pilot is on when we pray. What would it be like if we turned that off? What would it be like if tefilah meant "to fall": to fall deeply into meditation, to let go of the ways we hold on to ourselves and our habits, and explore whether we are leading the lives we want to be leading and not feel that we are wasting the precious time we've been given. When we meditate or pray, we can stop what we are doing, and we can take notice of the path we are on. With tefilah can come the self awareness that helps us avoid burnout, overconsumption, drowning in the mundane, feeling cut off from others ...

And what of tsedakah? How does this help us avoid imbalance and transform the harsh realities of life?

Tsedakah does not just mean giving to charity. It means doing the right thing-no matter how big or small and even when there is no one else is watching.

One of the earliest lessons I remember from my studies in Yeshiva as a young girl was that if you are sitting on a bus and an elderly person comes in, not only must you give them your seat, but you must then consider moving far enough away so that they don't have to look at you and feel embarrassed that they needed your seat. (Unless it seems that they would like to engage you in conversation, in which case you don't shun them because of their infirmity).

Tsedakah can simply be about offering a hug when needed, making the phone call you know someone is waiting for.

Tsedakah means caring not only about what you have done, but enabling others, giving to others in a way that increases their pride and dignity without asking for something in return.

Its about contributing to building a good world.

Tsedakah invites reciprocity. The more good deeds we do the more inclined others become to do the same, the stronger and more centered we all become. Tsedakah affirms life. The stronger our collective community becomes, the more balanced and better the world is. The more worthwhile and meaningful our lives are in the present, the less afraid and concerned we are about the end of life.

And finally: Teshuvah - Repentance: Teshuvah is so much more than taking time once a year to say I am sorry and to ask forgiveness. Teshuvah really means to return, to come back. According to R. David Wolfe Blank, 'alav hashalom, we return to the clear essence of who we are, and shed those qualities we have acquired which distort our essential being and hinder our ability to realize our deeper aspirations.

R. Blank taught that the process of Teshuvah involves examining our behaviors, roles, and patterns to determine which parts we want to let go of, and which parts we want to strengthen. It means noticing our successes and where we miss the mark.

The Hebrew word for missing the mark, for being off center, is khet, often mistranslated as sin. The process of Teshuvah enables us to get back on target, to return to a balanced center and to lead a balanced life.

Teshuvah also means an answer, a return upon a question, which suggests that you first need to ask the question, Where I have missed the mark? Where am I making a wrong turn?

Here are some questions that R. Blank proposes we might ask during this period of teshuvah. Don't worry if you can't remember them all - Even one of these questions may be enough for you to embark upon your self-exploration and to guide you back to your centered self.

Am I satisfied with my life? What's working, what's not? Do I believe I can be happy and fulfilled? What do I need to do to feel that I'm deserving enough?

Do I know what my goals are? Is my current path optimizing my ability to achieve them? And if not, what changes do I need to make?

From whom have I learned in this past year? What was special about this learning? What do I want to learn more about next year?

What is my feeling towards family and friends? Is everything clear between me and them? Is there something I want to say but have not been able to express?

How do I feel about work ? Is it a pleasure, or a burden? Have there been satisfying outlets for my own special creativity?

Have I contributed to Tikkun Olam, the healing of the World? To what extent am I aware of the fortunes of people outside my circle?

And finally, What would heaven on earth be like? What would people do then; how would they live; how would they interact?

This last question intrigued me a lot. I was reading about a festival called Burning Man that took place over the Labor Day week. It's an experiment in creative community living in a 400-square-mile expanse known as the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Listen to how its described:

"Burning man is the place where you come to build a community that needs you and relies on you. Burning man is the place where you come to survive. Where you come to create. Where you come to experience. And where you come to celebrate. Nobody is a spectator.

To me this sounds like a contemporary interpretation of the intention or the kavanah expressed in the Unetaneh Tokef.

We may not have control over how we die, but we do have some choice over how we live, how we act. Our limits are real and unavoidable. But our vision and imagination can soar.

When it says "Vechotem yad kol 'adam bo" - that we each sign our name in the book - the sefer chayim - the book of life, not of death - It means that we get to edit this book, we get to dot every 'i' and cross every 't', we get to write the next chapter. We are not just spectators: we are the ones who seal it with our signature.

And everything gets written down and recorded, nothing is forgotten; But this is not about God's book or God's memory; This is not a threat. This is about the understanding that everything we do in life has an impact somewhere upon someone at sometime. Scientists have called this the "Butterfly Effect" - the notion of a butterfly flapping its wings in one area of the world causing a tornado or some such weather event to occur in another remote area of the world.

Here's something more amazing. In quantum physics, it has been shown that when any two objects interact, they become entangled in such a way that any change to one object will instantly affect the other object, even when they are no longer in proximity to each other, even when they are at opposite ends of the universe. In other words, how you are to other people every day changes the world! (Long before science, the Midrash said that what we do during our lives has meaning because how we conduct ourselves now, determines the nature of our influence on the world and on the future.) It makes each and everyone of us important.

So every kind word spoken, or meal we cook or song we sing has its impact. It doesn't matter if you remember it: Somewhere, at sometime, someone will.

The High Holy Days are about reflection, self awareness, and conscious living. About forgiving ourselves and others. And they're about the possibility of change. The Unetaneh Tokef offers us a template of what a meaningful and balanced life might look like. And it tells us that the way to start is by listening to the still, small voice awakening us to our innermost selves, to a new day of new beginnings. Not someday, but today. It is the voice of hope. As the brilliant Indian thinker Arundhati Roy said, "Another day is on her way. If you listen quietly, you can hear her breathing."

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