Unetaneh tokef is perhaps the quintessential high holiday prayer,
In it we declare:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed
Who shall live and who shall die.
Who by fire, who by water;
who by hunger and who by thirst;
who by sword and who by beast.
But, the final line promises,
through teshuva, tefilah and tzedakah -
repentance, prayer and good deeds,
we can reverse the Divine decree.
In past years it has felt sufficient to me to read this prayer through an internal spiritual lens,
seeing it not as about actual death, but more about spiritual deadness or aliveness -
This year, that read feels insufficient.
There has been so much death, so much suffering,
so much violence, hatred, pain, abuse.
If you are like me, you wake up each morning
anxious to check the news,
bracing yourself for what awful tragedy
has happened over night.
Refugees fleeing persecution and violence, seeking safe shores
and too often being turned away;
those unable to escape falling at the hands of abusive governments;
Mass shootings as almost a regular occurrence in our country;
Police brutality; sexual assault across college campuses; terrorist bombings in our public spaces causing us to live in perpetual fear;
the ongoing violence and murder perpetrated against people of color;
homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism.
The list, as we know, goes on and on.
The suffering and death is all too real.
It goes way beyond a spiritual metaphor.
How can we read U’netaneh Tokef,
a text that assures us
that our repentance, prayer and good deeds can change everything -
saying if we do these three simple things, well then, we can assure ourselves a place in the Book of Life?
This is a mindset that seems to blame the victim,
saying that if you do not get written into the Book of Life it is because you failed to pray hard enough,
or repent deeply enough.
This sort of theology is not only absurd,
it is extremely harmful.
The only way I can engage this prayer this year
is by reading it on the level of the collective,
rather than of the individual.
None of us can write ourselves into the Book of Life.
Rather, we must inscribe each other.
Our acts of prayer,
our commitment to work on the places in our lives where we have missed the mark
and to make amends,
our dedication to the good deeds
of educating ourselves and others,
of speaking out when we see injustice,
of welcoming in those on the margins,
of making our our home, our community, our country
a place of refuge and safety,
of challenging ourselves to continue to grow to be more tolerant and open --
These acts won’t save us, individually,
but it is through these acts that we create
a collective Book of Life
in which we all can be written.
We are each responsible for one another,
and we each have our part to do.
May we feel the awe and trembling of this moment
and may we each,
in whatever ways we can in our lives,
shift our actions
so that together
we may reverse the Divine decree.
--Rabbi Adina Allen, Rosh Hashanah 5777