Unetana Tokef

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created;

who will live and who will die;

who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;

who by water and who by fire,

who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm,

who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.

Who will rest and who will wander,

who will live in harmony and who will be harried,

who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer,

who will be impoverished and who will be enriched,

who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

U’netana tokef Drash

Yom Kippur 5752

Arthur Strimling

For Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

Here’s a story, a true story. It is 1967; I am driving an ancient Morris Minor, Oliver Tractor Green.  My son Eric, age 5, is in the back seat -- for safety.  Car safety,  this is a very new, very cutting edge concept in 1967.  We are singing his favorite song, Stephen Foster’s Old Black Joe.  I know I know, God help me, it’s another thing I have to repent for today.  But what could I do, he loved it?  Over and over we sing it.  ‘I’m coming/I’m coming/For my head is bending low. I hear the gentle voices calling Old Black Joe.’ 

After about a dozen times, Eric says,

‘I know why his head is bending low.’ 


‘Because he’s going to get old and die.’

‘Oh, I guess so.’ 

Then silence. No singing, no talking for a long time.  And then…,

‘Are you going to get old and die?’ 

Uh, oh, this is it.  I can tell the truth or I can lie. I do the usual – a half truth.

‘Yes, I am going to get old and die, but you will be grown up then and you won’t need me anymore, and maybe even you will have children of your own.’ 

Another long pause. ‘Is Mom going to get old and die’ 

‘Yes, Mom will get old and die, but then you’ll be grown up like with me.’ 

Long pause, very long,  then suddenly he bursts into tears, this little boy in the back seat, screaming, ‘I don’t want to get old and die! I don’t want to get old and die! I don’t want to get old and die….’  I pull over, get in the back seat, hold him. He is inconsolable for a long time. 

If you are parents, you probably had moments like that. Eric does not remember this moment at all.  I don’t remember the moment I knew. But we all have to have had that moment.  Some say that when Eve bit the apple, she learned about death, not sex. 

And that’s where u’netana tokef hits us.  That litany of ways we might die returns us to that moment; that utterly innocent moment, unfiltered by philosophy or religious doctrine, that inconsolable moment of first knowing, ‘I am going to die.’  

Some day, some hour, some minute, some second, I am going to die.  By fire, by water, at ripe old age, by stoning, by earthquake or hurricane, by plague, or Cancer.  As Rabbi Lippmann said, ‘Every moment somewhere some one is dying.’  The poem is right about that.  It is written.

But in a book?  By God?  When I read this, I see an old man, in this case it has to be a man, a total patriarch with the beard, behind a desk, and the colors and light are pure Rembrandt; he is looking right at me and writing maybe with a quill or a finger, a long finger.  It is a beautiful image and awesome, but … I just don’t believe it.  And I talked about it with a lot of people at Kolot, and none of them does either. Except Leah, age 11, but even she doubts it would be a book; she thinks probably these days, an iPad.  

So if it is written, then how?  Well, being a 21st Century guy, the son of a geneticist, I see it written in a mysterious, unpredictable combination of DNA and environment.  My family’s DNA suggests I might live to ripe old age, but then again, maybe I breathed something somewhere, or a gene mutates badly, or maybe tomorrow a piano falls on my head. (Right at this moment my wife is going poo poo poo!).  When I was born, no when I was conceived, my death was guaranteed.  It is written. 

And then the poem says, “But Repentance, Prayer and Charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”  And every year I read that, and the whole thing falls apart.

What does that mean? “Repentance, Prayer and Charity temper judgment’s severe decree?”  Innocent children and  wonderful adults, tsaddiks, die young, some of them horribly, while Idi Amin for example, lived out his days in wealth and luxury in Saudi Arabia. So how can they say that prayer, repentance and charity have anything at all to do with judgment’s harsh decree? Every year I think that, and every year I come away from this prayer with a sour taste in my heart. Margie Fine says that she reads this and ‘There’s steam coming out of my head.’  Or as my friend Bob, a lawyer, put it, ‘This looks like a contract between two untrustworthy parties.’  God doesn’t mete out reward and punishment in any way that we can read as just or consistent, and we humans, most of us, could do a lot better in the tefillah, teshuvah and tsedukah part of the bargain.

But the U’netana tokef goes by so fast, and then the gorgeous music starts up again, and we start beating our breasts, and I never take the time to think it through. Well this year Rabbi Lippmann gave me the chance with this honor, and one thing I learned is that from the moment this gorgeous poem was written in maybe the 7th Century, people have been reacting the same way I do.  And another thing I learned is that through the ages the word that is translated ‘tempers’ in our machsor, ‘ma’avirin,’ is translated in a whole spectrum of different ways.  I found over twenty different meanings, Here are a few:  ‘Cancel, Avert, Remove, Annul, Transform, Make easier.’ And the one that comes closest for me, ‘remove the evil of the decree.’

So the spectrum of possible meanings is as wide as the spectrum of Jewish belief. Everything from real magical thinking to wishy washy; from Pat Robertson to a pat on the back.

But why does it matter? Can’t we just blow off the question after a few minutes thought, choose the translation we like best, and move on?  I sort of thought that, until last Shabbat here at Kolot, when Brett Parker led us brilliantly through a study of this text, and in the midst of an intense, heady dialogue Renee Hill said something like, ‘Look we have to take this language very seriously, we have to confront it, because a lot of people I know believe that the hurricane was God’s punishment.” It’s not just that every time there is a disaster some ghoul minister slithers up out of the ooze to proclaim that it is the fault of the liberals or the homosexuals or the liberal homosexuals – in other words, Kolot Chayeinu.  Oh, yes, its all our fault!  It’s not just those weird ministers, Renee said, a lot of good regular people she deals with every day believe that stuff and we need to be able to confront that language with clarity and confidence. 

So what does it mean?  Well, I discovered in reading back through the centuries that there were always those who were determined to be literal – that God rewards the good and punishes the bad, and they logic chopped their kishkes out to prove that everything our eyes, ears, minds and hearts told us was wrong.

But there were also those who knew this poem was reaching for something truer, deeper, more healing than that. I haven’t time here to review it all; as Casey Stengel said, ‘You could look it up.”  But I want to tell you two things.  The first Brett Parker taught to us last Shabbat.  And it is that Tefillah, Teshuvah and Tsedukah do not mean what our prayer book says they mean.  Instead of prayer, think of Tefillah as ‘attachment, connection’ to God, to each other. Teshuvah is not just repentance; it means ‘turning’ – toward God, toward your heart. And Tsedukah is not charity in the sense of giving out of the goodness of your heart, when the mood strikes you on the subway. Tsedukah is an obligation. We Jews are obligated to give, to help, to share.  So all these words have powerful meanings – attachment, turning and the obligation to share. 

And what does this have to do with the harsh decree?  As I said, my favorite translation, which is from the Orthodox Artscroll Machsor, is that Tefillah, Teshuvah and Tsedukah ‘remove the evil of the decree.’  Which suggests that the decree itself is not changed, but what can change is the way we receive and live with it.  Our beloved friend Amina died recently, about three weeks after the diagnosis of Cancer. It did not matter how good, wise and just she was, and she was far above most of us in all those categories. The evil of the decree was not averted or canceled or even tempered. But Amina lived a life full of connection and turnings toward higher ideals, and always always giving. And because she lived so wisely, she was able to meet her harsh decree with equanimity, wisdom, charity, even humor. And she was surrounded by loving family, friends and community.  The harsh decree was irrevocable and evil, but the passionate, generous, joyous, wise life Amina lived and the way she died, transformed us all. 

Artscroll says ‘remove the evil of the decree.’  I can’t accept that ‘remove’.  I still see evil in Amina’s death, in Troy Davis’ death, in Steve Job’s death, in so many deaths.  But their dignity and wisdom do have transformative powers for them and for us.  So for now I will go with this translation:

“Connection, Turning, and the Obligation to Share transform the evil of the decree.” 

Forty-five years ago my little boy first met the stark terror of death.  And I still recognize that terror.  At the other end, my mother age 95 has no fear.  She says, ‘I am glad for every day I am alive, but when death comes I will welcome it.’  I am not there yet, I am so far from there. But this prayer, this poem provides a practice, a path in that direction. 



And though I don’t believe it, I love saying to you all, ‘May you be writ in the book for a good year.’  Shanah Tovah. 


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