Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die, Who Can Bear This Prayer?

Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5772

Since this is the season of searing honesty and rigorous self-judgment, I’ll share what happens every year that I pick up the Machzor to prepare for the High Holidays. Its sheer heft is daunting–many, many words to get through meaningfully–but that is not the greatest challenge. It is in the words that conflict with what we know to be true, and in the words we know to be true and would like to forget.
It is the Un’tane Tokef, the poem that asks “Who shall live and who shall die,” one of the best known and the most controversial poem of the High Holidays, that I want to look at this morning for its holy difficulty.
Those brought up on the old Reform Union Prayer Book will not even recognize it as part of the tradition because it was excised from the service. When, in the seventies the editor Chaim Stern was asked why he included it in the revised Reform Machzor in the seventies, he said, “Because it has a nice tune and people like to hear it sung.”
A few of you only come once a year to see us, and don’t like being told that the old-time religion is good just because it’s old. You’re thinking that if there weren’t prayers like this, you might come more often!
Why, when you only come once a year, do you have to encounter such a cry for divine vengeance? Why must you be reminded that your life is tenuous, and gulp, temporary? Every year I worry that someone will look at these words, slam the book shut, and walk out. At first glance, who could argue?
Please turn to Page 282 so we can look at the disturbing text together. It begins with God as supreme Judge of all we have done in the last year. Our deeds are being measured and recorded by the magistrate who will determine our fate for the coming year.
When we turn the page, we come to the most terrifying part of the poem: “Who shall live and who shall die in the coming year? Who by fire and why by water, who by sword and who by wild beasts? Who shall rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who disturbed?” To deepen the meaning, we only have to remember that it was Lynn Kraiden, z’l, who read it last year.
What makes us tremble is that we are not watching a play where we are distanced from the text by other characters speaking their lines. We are called to be part of the drama and to claim the words as ours. We remember whom we have lost this year. When we say the words together, each of us wonders, “Who in this room won’t be here next year? In which book will my name be sealed?” and wonder who will not be with us by next year.
The story of the prayer’s origin is horrific; it’s comforting to know that it is not true. It tells of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 13th Century being approached by a local bishop, who asks him to convert. Amnon puts the bishop off, saying he has to think about it and will return in three days with his answer.
Immediately, however, he is seized with guilt for his hesitation. That he would even consider conversion shocks him, and he refuses to appear in three days. The bishop sends soldiers to bring Amnon to the castle by force. When asked why he didn’t appear, he explained that he so regretted even promising to return with an answer. His agreement to return is a good enough reason for punishment.
He wants his tongue cut out because it was the offending organ. The bishop disagrees and says that it is his legs that should be removed, because they didn’t bring him back as he had promised. Off with his fingers and toes!
The soldiers return what is left of him on a knight’s shield back to his home in the Jewish quarter. When it is Rosh Hashanah, Amnon asks to be taken to the synagogue. He is placed, along with his amputated parts, next to the prayer leader, and stops him just before the visionary blessing of God’s holiness. With that, he recites the Un’tane Tokef, a prayer never heard before. As he concludes, he disappears, somehow into heaven.
Three days later, Amnon appears in a dream to a “Rabbi Kalonymous, ben Mushullam, ben Kalanymous, ben Moshe, ben Kalonymous.” He recites the prayer so that the rabbi can learn it and teach it everywhere, and tell the story of its origin. What a strange story to introduce on Rosh Hashanah, the day that celebrates with sweetness the birth of the world. In fact, the gruesome legend was a minor part of the service until the 1950’s, when after the Holocaust, rabbis found special resonance in it.
Nevertheless, the prayer’s central teaching of the Un’tane Tokef is eternal for everyone who has ever lived: We are going to die and we don’t know when. Indeed, it is the message of the High Holidays and this prayer paradoxically will help us to live with mortality. Unetaneh tokef k’dushat h’yom! “Let us acknowledge the power of this day’s holiness.” It will teach us how self-knowledge, humility, and a shrinking of ego take the power away from death. We need no longer fear it.
When we enter deeply into this moment and realize how amazing it is that we are here at all and that we live as long as we do, we transcend the fear. If we were a life form that lived only one day but had human awareness, imagine the wonder of our brief life. We would witness our senses as astonishing miracle, our consciousness as God-like, and the world as paradise. Dayenu, no matter what happens today, it’s a miracle that I’m here to witness.
Perhaps it is because we sleep through so much of our lives that we fear death. When we wake up momentarily, maybe during the High Holidays, and we realize how much we have ignored, we wonder if we have ever lived. Furthermore, when we do pay close attention to our lives, we wince where we’ve missed the mark. By the time we read the litany of ghastly deaths, we’re in despair. What can we do?
The prayer provides the antidote: “u’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah–prayer, repentence, and charity–can avert the severe decree.” Why these three? It could have been other holy threesomes, such as study, love, and peace. If we really want to avert the severe decree, maybe we should look at whether we live a healthy life of good food, exercise, and rest. Yet it is Amnon’s three that will take away the fear of death by giving us a taste of it by making us smaller.
Teshuvah, the first of the three cures that the mythical Amnon chose, means to return to a life with God. It also means to turn within oneself and do a fearless inventory, judge your actions, and ask forgiveness if necessary. That includes yourself.
Believing that we can change is more than an act of faith, it’s a creative act. When you want to come up with a new idea, you sit with it and turn within. It’s the same with teshuvah. We admit our undesirable behavior. We are ashamed and humbled. We’re not as good as we thought. However we can ask forgiveness and make retribution, we do.
Like Jacob after his wrestle with the angel, we are left wounded by the encounter with our darker selves. The only way we can return to God is by learning who we really are and becoming who we want to be. Teshuvah shatters the ego of excuses, defenses, and self-righteousness; I am diminished when I admit that I have hurt another. I adjust to a new and truer self-image, and work to let go of my pride.
Adin Steinsaltz describes the process as when “a person turns himself about, away from the pursuit of what he craves, and confronts his longing to approach God.”
When I do this sincerely, I have to give up my desire to be right, and to win. To be less than the grand persona I worked so hard to build and maintain is a relief. Only by letting go and getting real will I know my true longing.
Tefillah also shrinks the ego. When you pray or meditate, you are acknowledging that you are not all there is, and that you can’t control everything. The words from your lips surrender you to something greater than yourself and they remove you from self-absorption. Just as the shofar needs to have air pushed through it for a sound, so prayer is God’s breath blowing through us.
Finally, tzedakah means righteousness, and it’s the simplest to understand how it lessens us. Giving away something I have to someone who needs it more makes me poorer. It also makes me question how much I need to live. Doing tzedakeh also shows me that I need less than I thought, and it gets me used to letting go of what I think is mine.
Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah lead to a freedom from the weight of pretending to be more than we are. I need to admit that I’ll probably never study a text in Aramaic again without translation and I need to admit that I was never very good at it.
The Hebrew for the word that is translated “avert” is ma’avirin, which means not only to annul but to cross over, or go beyond. We go beyond our fear of death by having a dress rehearsal each High Holidays. We foil death by allowing a little of it into our lives when we slay ego and remember that we’re not God. We admit that we are not all-powerful, and our lives are in Your hands, God. What a relief!
On Rosh Hashanah, we remember that it is a holy act to go into our most authentic selves, face what we have avoided too long, and behave differently. We may feel smaller and more vulnerable in this new way, but we feel more whole. We are less afraid because we have less to lose. Through humility, we can discover glory.
We don’t have to be perfect, just honest. We’re works in progress. We’re learning how lessening ourselves helps us to fit more gracefully into the divine Image we bear.
Help us to grow near You, Holy One, in facing what frightens us, seeing its illusion, and rejoicing in the introspection, admission, and righteousness that brings us peace.