“Who shall live for the sake of others; who, dying, shall leave a heritage of life.” I’ve always appreciated that line from Gates of Repentance very much. It has helped me to draw some meaning out of the unetaneh tokef prayer that follows – words that agitate me, year after year. “Living for the sake of others” and “leaving a heritage of life” takes the edge off of a prayer that proclaims at its heart: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed…who shall live and who shall die.”
With all due respect to the author of the poem, whose identity is lost to history: no it isn’t. At least, it isn’t in the most literal sense of the words. I know some traditionalists in the congregation might be bristling at that assertion, but hear me out. I appreciate that the prayer expresses one poet’s certainty in God’s righteousness and justice. But to let these words stand as though they are doctrine is not fair to you; even more, it is not fair to God.
The kernel of unetaneh tokef is the notion that a book lays open before God during the Ten Days of Repentance, and in this book are written our names and our prognoses for the coming year. The first draft is written on Rosh Hashanah; the final edition is sealed on Yom Kippur. When we say g’mar chatimah tovah, “may the final sealing be a good one,” it is to that teaching that we refer.
But here’s the thing: the genre of Jewish literature from which the teaching derives, the midrash of the ancient Rabbis, is not meant to be taken literally. The Rabbis were never big into writing learned essays; they taught through the folksier, more approachable method of the story. But their stories were often fanciful, incredulous. We might assume that their audience – the Jews in the pews of their day – was in on the method. We might assume, as well, that the teachings were explained and contextualized in conversations. But those conversations aren’t as memorable as the stories which they explain, so it’s the stories that remain. Our assumptions, and our observations, allow us to do some detective work and get to the heart of this teaching.
Here’s what we discover: somewhere along the way, a certain Rabbi Jonathan wanted to inspire people to righteous living, and so, on a Rosh Hashanah, he taught the story of the three books. A certain Rabbi Kruspedai liked the teaching, and cited it for his congregation. It was deemed interesting enough to be preserved, and so the Talmud has this text:
Said Rabbi Kruspedai, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely righteous, one for the completely wicked, and one for those somewhere in between. The righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life; the wicked, for death. Those who are somewhere in between are held over from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, they are inscribed, for life or for death.
Now, the Rabbis who followed Yohanan and Kruspedai saw the difficulties, the illogic of the passage, really. They knew what we know: empirical data demonstrate that righteous people do in fact die, year after year. And scoundrels live, and prosper, year after year. And Rabbi Yohanan knew this too, of course. He was telling a story, teaching a lesson, motivating his congregation to do the hard work of teshuvah during that High Holiday season.
What Rabbi Yohanan really meant to teach, the essential, stripped of the metaphor, might have been this: on Rosh Hashanah, Jews gather together to think about issues of ultimate importance. For some of us, it’s our first time thinking about these issues, through a Jewish lens at least, since the prior Yom Kippur. The synagogues swell with people, and the collective power of all of those prayers, of all of those intentions, gives these days a sense of power and awe. Things begin to happen on Rosh Hashanah, and come to fruition on Yom Kippur. It seems to us, then, that this is the time of year for writing…and sealing. But in truth, every day can be a New Year, every day can be a Day of Atonement.
With every fiber of my being, I believe that Rabbi Yohanan probably said those words to his congregation on the day he first preached the sermon, or at the very least he said them to the smart person who came up to him after the service to point out the absurdity of his position.
Along the way, the recognition that the teaching is fanciful, motivational, not meant to be taken literally, fell further and further by the wayside. I shudder to think about what harm was done to Jews who failed to appreciate this teaching for what it was, and instead assumed that their trials and suffering were evidence of their sinfulness, of their having been unsuccessful at averting an evil decree during the previous High Holiday season. What a shame that Rabbi Yohanan wasn’t on hand, in every generation, to bring the teaching to life, to flesh out the skeleton.
Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching, and its poetic rendition as Untetaneh tokef, says some very wise things about human beings. Our capacity to grow and change, particularly through repentance, prayer and charity, is undeniable. And in the growing and the changing, the severe decree is indeed tempered. As long as we can see beyond the narrow lens of these Ten Days and know that every day is fit for change and growth, then the lessons of unetaneh tokef are healthy ones, very much worth internalizing. Another helpful lesson from the prayer lies in its insistence on driving home our mortality. To know that we are dust, that we are broken, that we wither and fade, that we are shadows moving across the landscape, is good. The knowledge of our finitude can be the inspiration for our growth and change. Here’s how we say it at yizkor time: “We are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”
Unetaneh tokef says some wise things about us, and it says some wise things about God, as well. That God is the ground of the universe, el chay vekayyam, the encompassing All, feels wise and true. That God does not desire the death of sinners, but rather their penitence, is also helpful. If we can draw these lessons out without getting hung up on the language, of picturing some guy in the sky dispensing favors and punishments, then praying these words may be a powerful experience.
But let us not allow a beautiful teaching about the power of repentance at all times morph into a scary, angry, rant about a deity who deals life and death for ten days a year. Let us not draw from these words conclusions about ourselves, our friends, our family. Nothing was written last Tuesday, and nothing is being sealed today, that isn’t written and sealed every other day of the year as well. Every day is Rosh Hashanah, a chance to begin anew; every day is Yom Kippur, a day to be at one with the One. Nothing was written last Tuesday, and nothing is being sealed today, except our response to the blessings and the challenges that life sends our way. Our teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah make the difficulties more bearable; they suspend, to some degree, the severity of the decree.
With that in mind, let us declare the awesome nature of this day….