Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die: Reflections on the Unetaneh Tokef Prayer

“On Rosh HaShanah it is written, On Yom Kippur it is sealed:  Who shall live and who shall die…..”
Dear Friends,

Each year, when we read the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer printed above, I am struck by the disturbing power of these words. The idea that God sits in judgement, while central to the theology of the High Holy Days, seems antiquated.  Do we really believe this?  Are we not painting a picture of God as some sort of exalted Santa Claus who watches us, pen in hand, while “…making a list, checking it twice, looking to see who’s naughty and nice?”  Is this the God to whom we want to pray?

I have rabbinic colleagues who have omitted this prayer entirely from the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy because of their discomfort with its message.  For a long time, I, too, struggled to find meaning in its message.

This year, however, I’m approaching the U’netaneh Tokef with new eyes.  As many of you know, my mother, Sophie Black z”l, and Sue’s father, Amos Rosenbloom z”l recently passed away. While their deaths were not sudden or unexpected, the reality of the loss of a parent brings questions of mortality, meaning and purpose into sharp focus.  The phrase: “Who Shall live and Who shall die....” shifts from the abstract to the concrete.  Suddenly and without warning Sue and I have become one of the elders of our family.  This is both sobering and liberating – a combination of personal loss and responsibility.

Another aspect of this prayer is not found in the concept of God’s judgement, per se, but in reinforcing the central moral principle that our actions make a difference.  If God is truly watching us – then we must ask ourselves whether what we do with the limited time allotted to us is worthy of observation.  In this context, no action is too small or inconsequential to be judged.  We are placed on earth for a limited time.  How we utilize the gifts of the years, months, weeks, days and seconds we are allocated becomes a reflection of our own selves and the awareness of our relationship with the potential for holiness that is an outgrowth of being created in the Divine image.  If God really cares about what we think and do, then we must be important.  One act can either change or destroy the world.  One person can make a difference.  It is up to us to choose.

As we enter into this High Holy Day Season, let us reflect on how we all have the potential to make change – in ourselves, our families and communities and in the world.

Sue, Elana and Ethan join me in wishing you a Shanah Tovah U’metukah – a good and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

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