On Friday night, we had a thoughtful and spirited conversation about the High Holy Day prayer called “U-n’taneh Tokef” – the piece that contains the powerful image of the “Book of Life” and the haunting refrain “who shall live and who shall die?”
I began by acknowledging the powerful discomfort that some – many? – have with the piece and those images and words. Does God really decide who will live and who will die in the coming year? Is it really true that once that decision is made it cannot be changed? Does God “micromanage” the world by sending disease to kill this one and fire to kill that one? Many people expressed irritation, even anger over these images. It was an important moment of revelation, as people saw that their feelings and thoughts were shared by many others.
I expressed my own thoughts, which I’ll summarize briefly here. First, I said, I keep in mind that this is a particular poem written by a particular person at a particular place and time. Its entry into the mahzor (the High Holy Day prayerbook) gives it a certain authority but it is not sacrosanct – put differently, it is not there to command us to believe it so much as it is there to evoke and provoke in us certain thoughts, feelings, moods. Related to that, then, was my second point: the piece is poetry and should be read as such. It’s purpose is not to provide an accurate, objective description of “reality”. After all, who could possibly know what God does or doesn’t do, what decisions God makes? As with all poetry, its use of concrete images is meant to bring us into acknowledgment or confrontation with big questions, and metaphors by which to understand and respond to those questions. Again related to that is another point: if human intellect is finite and God is infinite, beyond all of our rational and emotional capabilities – isn’t poetry and metaphor the only – and best – tool that we have by which to convey the religious experience? And if that is true, mustn’t we acknowledge that all liturgy, while offering something presented as truth, can only offer glimmers of truth? Finally, I shared that the God in which I believe is not a “personage” that is involved with the everyday workings of the world. The God in which I believe does not reward and punish and utilize the natural world in order to do so.
So, all that being said, what is the particular power of U-n’taneh Tokef for me? First, it conveys a sense that there is a transcendent standard of truth and justice – against which I want to measure my actions. I do not make those things up as I go; I make my most sincere effort to align my thinking and actions with that transcendent standard. And I use this poem as a yearly reminder of that. Second, the poem declares that my actions are of significance – even of great significance. It is not only great men and women, world leaders, whose actions are important; each and every action of mine is of significance and has an important impact on the world. Third, there is a delicate dialectic back and forth between my sense of my power and my vulnerability. I am, in fact, in control and responsible for much of my life; yet, too, there remain many things that are beyond my will and, in that sense, are determined. Fourth, the litany that begins with “who shall live and who shall die” reminds me not only of the vulnerability that is the lot of all of us but also of the horrors that face so much of the world beyond my comfortable little place here in the suburbs. And, finally, fifth – my favorite part: that, despite all that rages around us, all that might buffet us about, all that makes us feel small and insignificant and powerless – we have power by which to shape our lives and assert our human freedom in powerful and positive ways. “But repentance, prayer and charity temper the severe decree” – through taking responsibility for ourselves; opening our hearts; and serving others we can live lives of meaning and value in a world that so often looks meaningless and devoid of value.
You don’t have to love the U-n’taneh Tokef. You don’t even have to like it. In fact, perhaps one of the reasons for its presence in the service – and its staying power through several hundred years – is its provocative nature. As with poetry, liturgy that merely confirms everything we think we know and affirms the beliefs that we already hold has failed in its purpose; it is insipid and insulting. Real liturgy, I think, provokes us and challenges us and riles us up – so that we can transcend the place in which we already stand and become more intentional about the faithful lives that we seek to live.