Eighteen years ago, I led High Holy Day services for the first time. Sitting in the third row was a young family whose six-year-old son had drowned at day camp just a few short weeks before. They had a nine-year old daughter and the woman was seven months pregnant with their third child. This family had barely begun to come out of that initial darkness and horror of losing a child. And here they were – sitting in the third row, facing God with gaping holes in their hearts at the death of their son, and the depth of their loss. And there I was on the bimah – placed before them as a shaliach tzibur “the service leader” or more literally translated as the “emissary of the community” to lead them in prayer, to uplift them, to hold them in some kind of embrace where they might find comfort in the midst of this tragedy.
And then it came time for the U’netaneh Tokef. I was terrified. How would I possibility be able to hold it together to serve them and the rest of the community, knowing how raw and vulnerable they were?
I was a little raw and vulnerable myself. Two days earlier, I had buried my grandmother. She lived a long life – to 94, many good years – though the last ones were filled with loneliness and isolation. At the same time, my 46 year-old-brother was in the hospital, recovering from quadruple cardiac by-pass surgery. It was a stressful time, to say the least.
At that moment, all I could do was go forward. So I began to pray. As the words and haunting melody flowed through me, I began to understand more deeply than ever before that the U’netaneh Tokef is our reminder that we are all raw and vulnerable. It is the central reason we come together to mark this holy and awesome time. Jewish life is filled with opportunities for joy – with personal life cycle events and communal celebrations of Shabbat and holidays. But, this holy season is about life and death. We might try to avoid it, but there it is – stark and powerful. Look around. You don’t have to go very far down the row to find someone who has lost a loved one to death in recent days, months, or years. Look inward too – there it is. Each of us will die. Some in the fullness of days that may still never seem like enough, and some far too soon, suddenly, or after great suffering and pain.
What good does it do to confront this truth? We know the clichés – live life to the fullest since you never know what may happen. Be grateful for the time we have on this earth, make your life count. Accept that there is much in life that is far beyond our ability to control. We may know this already, but do we really take heed to our own advice? How often do we live in denial? How often do we forget and get swept up in pettiness, holding grudges, nursing angers, harboring ill will?
The starkness of life and death is undeniable in the U’netaneh Tokef. Though we recite it together in the collective voice, it is not about someone else. It is about me and you and each of us.
And yet… once we accept the truth of our mortality, the prayer offers us some comfort. Teshuvah – repentance – turning out outward to heal the hurts we may have caused to others and others have caused to us
Tefilah – prayer - turning inward, finding the hope to forgive ourselves, to accept our shortcomings, to open ourselves to God’s grace and compassion
Tzedekah – righteous giving – of our time and our resources to help others in need
These acts together provide a pathway for accepting that we are nothing but dust and ashes, and that in whatever time we might have in this world, we can make a difference – for ourselves, our loved ones, and in small and even some small ways for our world.