Erev Rosh HaShanah 5777
Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada
Good evening and Shana Tova, and welcome once again to the first service of the high holiday season. I’m Rabbi Bair and I’m thrilled to see so many of you here this evening. No matter when the holidays are in the calendar, early or late, they always seem to sneak up on us and catch us off guard. It takes some time to get into the spirit of these days of holiness – the kedushat hayom. So tonight I want to talk to you about the Unetaneh Tokef – a central prayer of the High Holidays that appears in the RH and YK morning services. You’ll hear it tomorrow morning, but I want to talk to you about it on this first night because it encapsulates much of what these holidays are about.
My own relationship with the Unetaneh Tokef prayer began in the summer after my first year at Oberlin College. The Hillel Rabbi at Oberlin had identified me as having a good voice and some interest in Judaism [say ironically]. So he asked me to serve as the chazzan at High Holidays at the start of my sophomore year. I still remember playing the cassette tape of the services in my parents’ living rooms all summer. I listened again and again as the Oberlin senior who had led the services before me sang the Unetaneh Tokef. His voice fluctuated in volume and in tempo as he chanted those terrifying, holy words. It was through learning the prayer in this way that I first came to know and love it. Its careful intonation struck a chord deep within me.
The Unetaneh Tokef is a piyyut —a liturgical poem recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We learn as children to translate Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year, which it is. But the other two names of Rosh Hashanah – Yom HaDin Day of Judgment and Yom HaZikaron—Day of Remembrance are even more important. Rosh Hashanah as Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment, is a very serious occasion. On Rosh Hashanah every Jewish and non-Jewish human being is judged by God. Our fate hangs in the balance during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Every good deed and work of healing we do in these 10 days is magnified in importance because one has the power to tip the scale in favor of God’s mercy.
The Unetaneh Tokef is meant to be terrifying. It is meant to wake us up to urgent mindfulness about how we communicate, how sensitive we are to other people’s feelings, and how effective we are in translating our values into action. If you’d like to look at the prayer with me now, you can turn to PAGE 174. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer begins by proclaiming the power of this day: it turns time into space, the day of RH into the space of a divine courthouse. It imagines that on Rosh Hashanah each of us passes through a truly fair and impartial court of justice. In this courthouse, God is the judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness, scribe and notary, recorder and accountant. God performs each of the roles of the heavenly court, thereby eliminating any possibility of human error. And what does the court decide? As the prayer says, “who will live and who will die:” the fate of every human being.
The prayer lists the many unexpected and chaotic ways people can die: by fire, by water, by sword, by beast, by hunger, thirst, pestilence, and earthquake. Such tragic events may be far beyond human prevention, but the prayer calls on us to focus on what we can control. It ends with three things that will lessen the harshness of God’s decree : teshuva , tefilah , and tzedakah – repentance, prayer and righteous service.
The theology of this prayer is certainly challenging. Does God really reward us for good behavior and punish us for bad? When people die in some tragic way, is it God decreeing that it is based in past actions? I have a hard time believing in such a God, and I suspect you do as well. In past generations, the Reform movement chose to deal with this prayer by taking out the uncomfortable passages: Gates of Repentance had only a shorter version of it and the old Union Prayer Book only had its conclusion. But as we can see in our new Reform machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, the full text of this prayer is back and I am personally glad for it. The Unetaaneh Tokef is powerful because it acknowledges all the uncertainty we live with every day simply by virtue of being human. The prayer imagines a just and merciful God, even in the face of the chaos of human happenstance. The crescendo of the three things we can control – t’shuva ut’filah utzedakah gives way to a very significant passage that immediately follows this prayer and which affirms the holiness of God – and again you can look at PAGE 180 if you’d like to follow. It reads: “You are everything that we praise you for: slow to anger, quick to forgive. You do not wish the death of sinners, but urge them to return from their ways and live. Until the day of death, You wait for them; You accept them at once if they return. Since You created us, You know our impulses; we are but flesh and blood.” This text of the kedushah – the part about the holiness of God that is said in call and response during the Amidah, is like the pinnacle of the pinnacle prayer, and it casts the Unetaneh Tokef in a new light. Punishment is the last thing God wants to do to us. Instead, what does God want? For us to realize our mistakes — our callous and petty and arrogant ways of being — to renounce them, and to develop healthy, affirming habits instead: habits of sincere prayer, humble repentance in seeking forgiveness; and courageous acts of good deeds.
Most importantly, the prayer reminds us: not all of life is in our control. It may feel like it sometimes, but then, when we’re least suspecting it, the unexpected happens. I think that by mentioning all of the aspects of life that feel chaotic, the piyyut allows us to move on, refocusing us on what our tradition teaches is most important. What we can control are our acts of kindness and service to others. The prayer asks of us: how often do we volunteer and contribute money to organizations and causes that are enacting our values in the world? When we are troubled, will we become riddled with anxiety or worse, turn to gossip that distracts us from root issues? Or will we pray about it? Will we even have a connection with God to enable prayer? What are our spiritual habits, our habits of the heart, that not only give our lives meaning, but make us more resilient? Can we get almost positively addicted to teshuva, t’filah and tzedakah such that WHEN bad things happen they don’t monopolize our spirit? This is the mode of thinking and feeling that the Unetaneh Tokef encourages us to take up during the high holiday season. And indeed, the tension of what we can and what we can’t control is at the heart of Rosh Hashanah in general.
There is an entire tractate, or masekhet, of the Babylonian Talmud devoted to Rosh Hashanah and it focuses on 2 themes that mirror the tension in the Unetaneh Tokef. The first is the process by which the rabbis would determine the correct date for the new moon, and therefore the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Human witnesses who saw the clear new moon in the sky were supposed to report it in person to the Beit Din, the high court in Jerusalem. Two witnesses were needed to set that date and even when the high court expected Rosh Hashanah to fall a day earlier or later, the court had to accept the testimony of human witnesses. We no longer calculate the timing of Rosh Hashanah like this, as you may have guessed. Now we just google “when is Rosh Hashanah 2016?” But the Talmud reminds us that the calendar was created for US and through human actions. God and the heavens followed the human declaration of the new moon.
The second topic in Masekhet Rosh Hashanaha is about the obligation to hear the shofar. The rabbis spend a fair amount of time emphasizing that we should hear the Shofar with intention. It does not count, they say, if you hear it accidentally while walking by a synagogue, and it doesn’t count if you just pick up a shofar and blow it to see if it will work. That’s because hearing the shofar is not just a technicality of the holiday, but a deeply meaningful act. The Shofar represents the piercing cry of the soul – the soul that comes from and connects us to God. We may show up at Temple because we know it’s the holiday but we have to be ready and present to hear the Shofar’s cry and accept its invitation to surrender to God. This tension between human agency and heeding God’s call is a central and productive tension of Rosh Hashanah. Here are the questions to contemplate on Rosh Hashanah: When do I act on my own, and when do I follow a deeper call? How do I distinguish between those aspects of reality I need to accept and those I need to change? It’s a time to look back on the past year and use that reflection to differentiate between what I can and cannot change in my present and future. And if we really wholeheartedly focus on forgiveness, prayer and charitable and righteous deeds, will we even have psychic space for worrying about the rest? It’s like the prayer’s ingenious way of distracting us into good and productive behaviors, which eclipse everything that’s not in our control anyway.
Over the next few services you will hear the Unetaneh Tokef two times…Take note of the crescendos and the moments of quietness in the melody and in the content of the words. Give into, momentarily, the terrifying image it creates – of people like sheep walking past the God who sits on a throne and examines each and every one of us. Allow yourself to become afraid and moved by the second paragraph, which expresses the awesome fear we may have when being scrutinized by God. And then allow yourself to be brought back to this world, and attempt to really mean it when, with the whole congregation you respond to the chazzan (that’s me): u’ teshuvah, u’ tefilah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagzera – that repentance, prayer, and righteous giving will avert the severity of the decree. This one prayer is a microcosm of the whole High Holiday season, which also leaves us exhausted and in new spirits. I hope that with the help of this prayer, you will be able to push the re-set button and bring your deepest-held values back to the forefront of your lives. Because those are the things you can control.
May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness. Shana tova tikateivu v’teichateimu!