Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Fifth Day of Tishrei 5781
As we explored yesterday, the prayer Untaneh Tokef is meant as an inspirational poem to move us toward t’shuvah with images of our mortality and our dependence on God who loves us, cares for us, and wishes us to be the best people we can be. All of this is very much in keeping with the themes of t’shuvah we have explored over the past thirty-four days.
However, the difficulty that most people today have with Untaneh Tokef is the suggestion that God pre-determines the time and means of each person’s death. That is not the way most of us think about God today. Worse, the poem implies that death is a punishment that God brings on people for their sins. Taken to an extreme, this implies that people who die – especially those who die a cruel or untimely death – have been judged by God to be wicked. Especially in this time of pandemic, we must be clear that this is not the intent or the theology behind the poem.
One key to understanding the poem’s meaning is to notice how the author changed the talmudic story upon which it is based. There is no book of the “completely righteous” or of the “completely wicked” in this poem, only a Book of Memory that includes all of us. The poem does not accept that there is such a thing as a completely good or completely bad person; we’re all “in between,” and we all have to work to become better by changing ourselves, by praying, and by acting righteously. Death is not a punishment for being wicked; death is the common fate of us all.
There is also another way of answering the difficult questions raised by the poem. When Untaneh Tokef speaks of death, we don’t have to understand it as meaning literal death – the end of our bodily life. There is ample precedent in Jewish tradition to read this as a figurative, spiritual death.
For example, the psalms proclaim, “The dead cannot praise Adonai” (Psalms 115:17). This verse has been interpreted to refer to those who are “spiritually dead,” people who are physically alive but who have no feeling for or connection to life’s meaning. If we read Untaneh Tokef this way, all of those descriptions of different kinds of death take on new meaning. We can understand the poem to be asking, “Who shall drown in their selfishness? Who shall burn with unchecked anger? Who shall be devoured by their own envy?”
Practice for this day:
What does it mean to you to be “spiritually alive”? When do you feel most alive? What are the things you can do to live your life that way more deeply and consistently