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Unetaneh Tokef 5781

When Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner asked me to curate and co-lead Musaf(1) at Or Shalom on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, I immediately knew that I wanted to do a sustained teaching on Unetaneh Tokef. But what and how? I read all the essays in the Prayers of Awe volume, Who By Fire, Who By Water - Un’taneh Tokef, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman(2), and found my inspiration. The essays by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner(3), Rabbi Sharon Brous(4), Rabbi Edward Feinstein(5), Rabbi David Stern(6), Rabbi Brent Spodek and Ruth Messinger(7), and Dr. Ron Wolfson(8), in particular, stirred me. As I mulled over the message I was developing, my wonderful, long-term chevruta partner mentioned a recent essay by Rabbi Benay Lappe(9). And so, this mashup of their “words of Torah”, and of mine, came together. Originally, I wasn’t going to publish it because it is so very derivative. But a friend reminded me that everything is derivative, as long as you acknowledge your sources, including, of course, the Source of All, from Whom I constantly derive inspiration and solace!

Unetaneh Tokef is one of the most beloved prayers of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf liturgy. If we took an exit poll, I think that most people would say that one of the highlights, if not the highlight, was singing “B’Rosh Hashanah yikteivun, uv’yom tzom Kippur yeichateimun, ai dai dai dai dai,” Mainly because of the haunting and familiar melodies and the beautiful poetry, I think. Not because of the theology. If we look at it carefully, at what we are really saying, it’s hugely problematic. The image of a celestial court, of all of us passing like sheep before the Judge of All who decides the end of all creatures. The sound of the great shofar, the thin whisper of sound, angels trembling.

Profoundly troubling. Especially this year. We are living it and breathing it in ways none of us anticipated. In fact, there was some suggestion in some rabbinic and cantorial circles (mostly tongue in cheek, but still … ), that maybe we should just skip Unetaneh Tokef this year altogether, because it’s just simply too raw, too current and we are too raw.

The words Unetaneh Tokef are usually translated as something like “and let us acknowledge the power”. Kedushat hayom/of this day’s holiness. The prayer “ … speaks of life and death, mystery and agency, limitation and hope, our mortality and God’s eternity.” It “ … raises these crucial questions about the meaning of our lives with the poetic force of a two-by-four.”(10) “On Rosh Hashanah they will be written down, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed: … Who will live and who will die, Who at their end, and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water; … Who by earthquake and who by plague.” You are familiar with Leonard Cohen’s haunting setting.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe in that God. The Reform Movement so didn’t believe in that God that the prayer was omitted from their Machzor for decades. But, I do believe that this litany reminds us that there are events in the world that are beyond our control. Unetaneh Tokef pounds home the reality of our mortality. “Life is glorious — but it is also fragile, tenuous and contingent.”(11) Seeing our human limitations is the source of wisdom. Unetaneh Tokef confronts us with the truth: mortality is a gift. Human action can have meaning in a world of radical contingency.

The core of Unetaneh Tokef is the reexamination of our varied relationships with God on the annual judgment day. The central teaching of Rosh Hashanah is pretty straight forward: we are all going to die. “The great spiritual challenge of the High Holy Days is to recognize the fragility of life, the brevity and capriciousness of human existence … .”(12) Sadly, these past several months have made that much, much easier for us. This prayer is an artistic wrestling with impermanence and death, with deeds and their consequences, with power and powerlessness, with fear and reassurance, with mistakes and second chances. God is chotev v’chotem/the author and the sealer. But our chotam yad/our signature is on every page. “… [W]e are God’s coauthors, and we have collaborated before.”(13)

Unetaneh Tokef climaxes with the words: “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah.” Three things will avert/transcend/help the harshness of the decree: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. These are no small things. “We can’t hide from death.” The decree cannot be changed. “But there are three things we can do to bring meaning into the radical uncertainty of our lives.”(14) We retain the power to make for ourselves a life worth living.

Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. Three concepts that aren’t very easily translated into English, although we usually use repentance, prayer, and charity. But all three share two common denominators: a loss of self and an affirmation of life. Teshuvah: returning to God through remorse, restitution, apology. Tefillah: genuine prayer by pouring out ourselves to our source in the Holy One. Tzedakah: giving of ourselves, our money, our time, our skill.(15) These are divine gifts and this is a divine-human partnership. “We are free to shape our character. We are able to share our common suffering and celebration in prayer and in song. We are equipped to heal and to help one another and to bring a measure of peace to the world. We bravely affirm the meaningfulness of human existence and our faith that God is present among us.”(16)

There are three sections of the Musaf service that are unique to Rosh Hashanah: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.

The first of these special sections, Malchuyot, declares God’s sovereignty. How do we do that?

What if we turn Unetaneh Tokef on its head? Instead of asking ourselves what we’ve done wrong this year, and what are the teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah we must do to transcend the harshness of the decree, we ask ourselves what the good things are that we haven’t done this year. What if that turns out to be a better motivator for changing our lives, actually living our values, and celebrating God’s sovereignty?

Rabbi Lappe tells a story of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of the then new Jewish movement in 19th century Germany called Orthodoxy. He surprised his students one day when, as he neared the end of his life, he insisted on traveling to Switzerland. Perplexed, his students asked him why such a journey was so important to him. In response, he explained, When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – “Shimshon, did you see my Alps?”(17)

God doesn’t just want us to follow the rules. God wants, maybe needs, us to drink deeply from the wells of possibility, beauty, wonder, and potential good that make up our world.  Did you see my Alps? Malchuyot!

In the second of the special sections, Zichronot, we remember the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. God remembers us, each and every single one of us. In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

Perhaps the best known question we will be asked in heaven is associated with Rabbi Zusya, the 19th century Hassidic Rebbe of Anipol, known for his timidity and humility. The Query of All Queries, as Martin Buber calls it. Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, Zusya ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, Zusya ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ "(18)

Have you been the best ‘you’ you can be? As Rabbi Benay puts it, “did you live your best, most fabulous, glittery, outrageous … life? Did you love deeply and with abandon? Did you discover your passions and live them out? Did you find your peeps and really nerd out together? Did you live fearlessly, knowing you were going to sometimes make a fool of yourself?”(19) Zichronot!

The Bible also calls Rosh Hashanah Yom T’ruah, the Day of the Shofar Call. In the third of the special sections, Shofarot, we are called to wake up to this divine calling.

We look to Talmud, to the fourth-century Sage, Rava, for the five other questions we will be asked in heaven. Translating them to our current existential reality: Did you conduct yourself honestly, with integrity and faithfulness? Did you take time to study Torah? Did you leave a legacy? Did you hope for a better future? Did you seek wisdom? Were you able to discern what was really important and what wasn’t?(20)

In other words, “ … [d]id you push yourself to grow and evolve? Did you listen deeply to the wisdom of people whose lived experiences were different from your own? Did you support movements for change? Did you work to leave the world in better shape than it was when you got here? … What are the good things that we haven’t done?” With our souls, with our breath, we ask ourselves these questions. As Rabbi Benay says so well: “… what beautiful, transformative, creative, fabulous, delicious, courageous, righteous, joyful, truthful, bold, parts of life have you not yet said yes to?”(21) Shofarot!

Today, Rosh Hashanah, we pass before God. We remember the ephemeral nature of life itself. We hear the still small voice tell us what we can do with our one, precious, glorious life. Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedaka. But what, exactly does God do?

The Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev teaches that the power to dole out justice and mercy, to bring joy into the world, to save the innocent and steward the planet doesn’t rest in Divine hands. It rests in our hands. It is not far away from us. It’s within our power. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak teaches that God shadows human action. “ … [W]e are God’s hands and feet on earth. … God’s hands are the hands of humanity, and God’s face the face of us all. The divinity we seek and fear lurks in the countenance of every human being … and revelation is the moment when we recognize that … . We pray to see God’s face, but God’s face has already been revealed to us, set on top of every human body … .”(22)

Today, God strengthens us. Today Adonai blesses us. Today Yah exalts us. Today the Holy Blessed One seeks our happiness. Today Havayah inscribes us for a good life. Today Shekhinah hears our cry. Today the Source of all Life lovingly accepts our prayer. Today, today, the Divine sustains us. Let this past year end with all its troubles. Let all of us be channels for the Great Healing. Today, the Holy One asks all of us, “Shimshon, Susan, Harley, Dave, Martin, Mary, … did you see My Alps”?


(1) Musaf is an additional service recited on Shabbat/the Sabbath, and Holy Days. During Temple times additional sacrificial offerings were made on these festive days. Musaf is now recited instead of those offerings.

(2) Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2010.

(3) “Death without Dying”, pp. 109-112.

(4) “At the Edge of the Abyss, pp. 142-144.

(5) “The Answer Is “Me!”, pp. 145-150.

(6) “Mortal Matters - The Faith of Un’taneh Tokef”, pp. 172-176.

(7) “God’s Hands”, pp. 221-224.

(8) “The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven”, pp. 235-239.

(9) “Did You See My Alps? And Other Questions We’re Asked in Heaven” eJewishphilanthropy, August 23, 2020.

(10) Stern, op. cit., p. 172.

(11) Ibid., p. 173.

(12) Brous, op. cit., p. 142.

(13) Stern, op. cit., p. 175.

(14) Brous, op. cit., p. 143.

(15) Kushner, op. cit., p. 110.

(16) Feinstein, op. cit., p. 150.

(17) Lappe, op. cit.

(18) Tales of Hasidism - Early Masters, Schocken Books, New York, 1975.

(19) Lappe, op. cit.

(20) Wolfson, op. cit. pp. 237-238.

(21) Lappe, op. cit.

(22) Spodek and Messinger, op. cit., p. 224.


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