Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Un’taneh Tokef

Who will live and who will die?

Today on our day of confessions, I have a confession to make.  This will come as no surprise to people who have spent time with me, but the truth is, I am a bit of a control freak.  I like things the way I like them.  I like when things go according to my plan.  I like it when I am in charge and when my plans work.  I make no apologies for this trait, but I will acknowledge that this particular characteristic can make it difficult for other people in my life with their own plans and desires to control things.

Yet I believe this is longing for control is a common human characteristic.  We like the belief that we are in control.  We have plans and we want them to be followed as we envision them.

But the truth is, there are many things in our lives which are beyond our control.   For example:  we don’t determine if we get sick, or if our loved ones will be safe.  We can’t control other drivers on the road or when or if we will meet the love of our lives.  We don’t like to talk or even think about this truth very often.  Acknowledging that we are not control is scary.  It is frightening to admit that we have limited power over some of the most important aspects of our own lives.

However, one of the most important themes of the High Holy Days is us coming face to face with this reality.  We have no choice but to concede this very truth.  This is especially true as we make our way through the solemn, dreaded and powerful Un’taneh Tokef prayer.

This prayer lays out our deepest fears and forces us to directly confront questions about life and death.

Some of the lines of the Un’taneh Tokef read:

On Rosh Hashana it is written

On Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many will pass away from this world

How many will come to be born in it;

Who will live and who will die;

Who will reach the ripeness of age,

Who will be taken before their time

Who by fire and who by water

Who by war and who by beast

Who by famine and who by drought

Who by earthquake and who by plague

And so on

Mi yicheyeh, umi yamut

Who shall live and who shall die?

In these questions the Un’taneh Tokef accepts that there are forces beyond us and that our power over our lives is limited.  It emphasizes that we have no idea and finite agency over what is going to happen in any year.  I can’t think of a year when we have learned that lesson more clearly than in 2020.  No one could have predicted last Rosh Hashanah that collectively we would be living through a year like this one.

Mi yicheyeh, umi yamut

Who shall live and who shall not?

As a global society, this question has been on our lips and in our hearts and minds since coronavirus began taking its devasting toll.  Each day thousands of people in our cities, in our states, in our country and around the world are dying from of this pandemic.

At the time of our recording there have been almost 190,000 deaths in the US from the coronavirus and its related illnesses.  We hear stories of people who were healthy one day, going about living their daily lives, when they contracted the virus and couldn’t recover.  I know people who have lost loved ones from it.  I have done the funerals and counseled their families.

So, the question “who will live and who shall die?” feels ever present on our minds right now.

The Un’taneh Tokef voices our deepest fear in its central question of who shall live and who shall not.  This is a fear we, as a society, have now being living with since March.  It is this fear that has kept kids out of school for months, it keeps loved ones apart and leads us to living socially distanced lives.

We know and understand this primal fear all too well.

We have all been living it for months now and truthfully, we have no idea how much longer we will be doing so.

We keep asking this same question: who shall live and who shall die?

Mi yicheyeh, umi yamut

Our fears, our experience, our current situation is literally written into this prayer.

Who will to an old age and who shall be taken too young?  Who by earthquake and who by plague.

Who by plague?

These are the questions that keep us awake at night.

There are many different theories and legends about the origin of the prayer, but who actually wrote it remains unclear.   The Un’taneh Tokef contains many Biblical references and images underscoring its importance by connecting back to our central text.

Even with it capturing our current moment, I need to voice that I have always struggled with this prayer and especially with the theology in it.  The images of God in this prayer are so dark that it says even the angels are trembling with fear.  The Un’taneh Tokef paints a picture of God writing names into the book of life.  Here God is revisiting all of our actions, words and deeds from the previous year.  Based on the sum total of all of our behavior, God literally judges us and decides if we should live or die.  God weighs the value of every living soul and declares who has earned the right to be written into the book of life to live and who has not.  If we are written into the Book of Life for this year, we must pass the same test next Rosh Hashana repeating the same cycle over and over again.

The theology of the Un’taneh Tokef is not a God we, as Reform Jews, normally think of: a God with the power to decide if we are going to live or not.  Even though I know we do not control who gets sick, I still struggle with the image of God sitting in judgment of our lives deciding whether or not we have earned the right to be written into the Book of Life. I wrestle with this concept of God sitting with two books determining who should live and who isn’t worthy of doing so.  I do not believe in God as judge,  plaintiff, counselor and witness to our lives.  This theology does not work for me nor is it my concept of God.  While I acknowledge that we do not control the length of our days, I do not believe and cannot believe in a God that decides our fate based on our actions and write our names in one of these books.

 Mi yicheyeh, umi yamut

 Who shall live and who shall die?

The Un’taneh Tokef provides the answer of what we can do to impact our own fate:

Utshuvah, utfilah, utzdakah

Maavirin et roa hag zeirah

“Repentance, Prayer and Charity Temper judgement’s severe decree.”  This is the translation in the Gates of Repentance that Reform Jews used for decades.  Another translation of this same line is: “And repentance, prayer and charity cancel this decree.”   In our machzor Mishkah Nefesh, it reads: “But through return to the right path, through prayer, and righteous giving we can transcend the harshness of the decree.”

If we think about these answers as literal, this is the most disturbing theological part  of the prayer for me.   I am especially troubled by the lines the about repentance, prayer and charity cancelling the harsh decree because we know too many good people have passed away.   Literally this implies that God did not write them into the book of life or their behavior didn’t merit God’s approval.  If this theology is taken further, it seems like this prayer is blaming the person.  Is it saying that their acts of “repentance, prayer and charity” were not sufficient to save their lives?

If so, that theological idea is abhorrent to me and I can imagine many of you.

When previous generations of Reform Rabbis were putting together the High Holy Day prayer book, they found the Un’taneh Tokef so deeply problematic that they took it out of the liturgy.  They did not want this prayer with its disturbing theology to be part of the High Holy Day experience.  I understand their concerns and struggles with this prayer, but as upsetting as I find it, I think it is essential that we read the Un’taneh Tokef each year to face these questions.  I think it I especially important for us to do so this year.

More than any other prayer in our High Holy Day liturgy, the Un’taneh Tokef voices the questions we avoid asking the rest of the year.  In this prayer we have no choice but to acknowledge that the length of our days is limited.  We are forced to come face to face with this reality and focus on what we want to achieve with the days that we have.  It can help us collectively and individually use the control, agency and power that we have to strive for the best in ourselves and for our world.

If we think of the answers of repentance, prayer, and charity not as ways to impact the length of our days, but guides for how we spend our time, then I believe there is wisdom in these lines.   We can view the Un’taneh Tokef as “God’s alarm clock.”  “God is giving us a wake-up call; key to this are three Hebrew words, teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah.   If we think of teshuvah as meaning not only repentance, but it also to return.  Teshuvah can be a return to our roots, our faith, traditions, and values, we can have more meaningful tefillah, prayer.  And if we have more connected tefillah, it can enhance our tzedakah experience.  Using the Un’taneh Tokef as God’s alarm clock we can engage more deeply with doing good in the world.  We will work for better world because it is at the core of who we are.  It is at the center of our traditions and values.  We can and should strive for a better world because prayer inspires us to.

The Un’taneh Tokef can be read as a call for social justice.  It is urging us to use the time that we have to work for a better and more just world.   The key is to stop questions like who shall live and who shall die from becoming an injustice.  If there was ever a time for us to deeply ask this question, it is now.  In 2020, we have seen the coronavirus hit some communities significantly harder than others.  According to the CDC, more people are sick with COVID-19 and death rates are significantly higher in counties with larger African American populations.  From the time COVID-19 began to spread in the US, communities of color have been disproportionally burdened by the disease.  Counties with larger African American populations faced higher case counts of COVID-19-related mortality rates.  They also have a faster pace of progression of seriousness of the disease compared to counties with a lower share of African American people.

The questions of “who shall live and who shall die?” “Who by earthquake and who by plague?” seem more relevant now than ever.

Not only because of coronavirus, but in 2020 we have also seen the systemic plague of racism take the lives of far too many people this year.  Over and over again we have witnessed the death of people of color in abhorrent and horrific ways.

Again, the question “who shall live and who shall die?” is the question we have to ask ourselves as a society this year.

The Un’taneh Tokef urges us to see the pain and suffering of others, and connect it to our own.  It is a call to stop the question of who shall live and who shall die from being a continued injustice.  It urges each of us to help return our world to the right path.  It is reminding us of that our days are limited, but to use the time we have to work for good.

These are words to live by.  They ask us to return, to return to the values, ideas, and beliefs of our tradition.

And to act in this way, we need to begin with ourselves.  The Un’taneh Tokef urges us to partner with each other and God in working for a better world.

We should read the Un’taneh Tokef as a call to make the most of our days.  We know we do not control the length of our lives, but we can decide what we will do with our time.   the Un’taneh Tokef is a call for us to work for a better world, one steeped in Jewish values.    We can and should use the urgency in this prayer to begin to actualize the society we want to live in.

In addition to the communal prompt of the Un’taneh Tokef, I believe this prayer is also pushing us individually to work on ourselves.  Throughout the High Holy Days, we are tasked with reflecting on our own behavior in the past year.  We ask ourselves what we did well and where we can improve.   As we are striving to become better people and the best versions of the Un’taneh Tokef is asking us individually to contemplate:

What parts of ourselves do want to live?

What part of ourselves do we want to foster and thrive?

What do we want to grow in ourselves in the year ahead?

What parts of ourselves do we want to let go of?

What habits, behaviors, hurts, wrongs, relationships, and behaviors need to die?

What parts of ourselves do we want to say goodbye to and what parts of ourselves do we want to embrace?

What in ourselves and our lives do we want to let die in the year ahead and what do we want to cultivate to live and fully blossom in the days and weeks ahead?

As the High Holy Days and especially the Un’taneh Tokef reminds us, the length of our days is not up to us, but what we do with our time is.  In fostering our best in ourselves, we move ever closer to achieving the potential in us and for the world around us.   Inspired by the Un’taneh Tokef, we can act in ways that cultivate growth for our community and ourselves.

We can change the way we hear this prayer, so instead of saying “who will live?” – meaning, “who will survive?”- we can use this question, who will live, as an aspiration for all to be able to flourish.  The Un’taneh Tokef reminds us that our time is limited, but it is imperative for us to use the time we have to live as our best selves and to work so all in our society can thrive.

May we be able to live up to this call in the year ahead.