Un’tane Tokef: Tefillah

There are songs that send chills down my spine. They remind me of events. They remind me of people. When I hear them, tears well up in my eyes. One of those is a song from a little known musical called “Baby.” It starts:

“So this is the tale my mother told me

That tale that was much too dull to hold me.

And this is the surge and the rush she said would show our story goes on.

Oh, I was young, I forgot that things outlive me.

My goal was the kick that life would give me.

And now, like a joke, something moves to let me know our story goes on.”


There are prayers that send chills down my spine. They are the prayers which remind me that our story goes on. Untane Tokef, the prayer of which Rabbi Brett spoke last week, is one of them. The text paints a picture of what the Yamim Noraim represent. Untane Tokef is crafted in a very literal way to remind us that all of our actions have consequences. The author paints a picture of God as a shepherd – examining each of us for wounds and flaws. The author paints a picture of God as the one who plots our life in the year ahead – writing down our fates in a Book of Life, for better or for worse. The author paints a picture of humanity as mere flesh and blood, as dust, as shattered pottery, as withered grass and faded flower, as a passing shadow – a vanishing cloud – a dream that will fly away.

And then, there is the text which represents the crescendo of the prayer: uteshuvah, utefillah, utzedakah ma-avirin et ro-ah hag’zeirah. This text is often translated as, “But repentance, prayer, and charity, temper judgment’s severe decree.” However, we might also understand this sentence as, “And repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship of the decree to pass.” According to Dr. Joel Hoffman, the Hebrew phrase, “ma-avirin et ro-ah hag’zeirah could mean either:

  1. The three good actions mitigate the “bad decree,” that is, they make the decree less severe; or
  2. That the three good actions might leave the decree unchanged but make its “badness” less. In other words, they might make it easier for us to deal with the inevitable.

This Shabbat and for upcoming Shabbatot, we look at this brief text in order to explore how each activity: t’shuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah become important to this season of repentance.

Look around you, seated in our sacred space is a community engaged in Tefillah. We offer ancient words, some in the garb of modern melody, to help our nefesh – our spirit – connect. But with what are we connecting? With God or with each other? Our tradition suggests that as we pray, we connect with God. On the other hand, Jewish tradition demands community for prayer. Sure, we can pray at home or in a forest, or even at work or school. However, Jewish service must take place in community.

            Community, however, is not just people sitting next to each other. True community requires relationship. Rabbi Edward Feinstein writes, “In prayer we transcend loneliness and alienation and discover the warm consolation of loving community. This is tefillah.” When we are part of a praying community, we feel the support we need to help us get through life. Ut’shuvah, u’tefillah, utz’dakah ma-avirin et ro-ah hag’zeirah.

            The words of prayer we employ during this sacred season are also important. Our liturgical tradition adds special texts to many prayers of the Amidah during the Ten Days of Repentance. As we offer the words of avot/imahot, which help us remember our spiritual lineage, we implore God zochreinu l’chayim, melech chafetz chayim – remember us unto life, sovereign who delights in life; v’chotveinu b’sefer hachayim l’ma-ancha elohim chayim – and write us into the Book of Life for your sake, O God of life.

In the next blessing, g’vurot, which speaks of God as a power in our lives, we utter mi chamocha av harachamim zocher y’tzurav l’chayim b’rachamim – Who is like You, Compassionate God, who mercifully remembers Your creatures for life. And, in the last prayer of the Amidah, the prayer for peace, we beseech God saying, b’sefer chayim bracha v’shalom ufarnasah tovah n’zacher v’nikatev l’fanecha – in the book of life, blessing, peace and prosperity, may we be remembered and inscribed. Those words then continue, anachnu v’chol am’cha beit Yisrael l’chayim tovim ul’shalom – each of us and all of Israel for a good life and for peace. We pray not for ourselves alone, but for our community. Ut’shuvah, utefillah, utz’dakah ma-aviri et ro-ah hag’zeirah.

            Most important, however, are neither the words we say nor that we come together in community. Most important is that we rise from our prayer as changed people. In the words of Rabbi Helen Plotkin,

            Even if it doesn’t change the plot of your story, it does change your character. That is, tefillah makes you a more worthwhile character in your own story. . . It’s not the plot that determines whether a work of literature is great or not so great. . . What we appreciate is the depth and richness of the characters’ lives. Tefillah can change our story into one worth reading. It can introduce the forms of thought and expression that make our stories eloquent. . . Tefillah deflects the badness of the decree by changing the focus from our powerless suffering to our power of response.

During this month of Elul, and throughout the Days of Awe, may we examine not only our tefillah, but also ourselves and rise from our prayer as changed people. In this way not only our own stories, but the story of the Jewish people will live on.

Ken Y’hi Ratson – May God’s will be so.