Meditations on the Poetry of Un’taneh Tokef
By Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig
Descriptions of God are speculation, imagination, projection, fantasy, philosophical proposition or pure poetry. Some are banal. Some are hate-filled. Some are so sublime they move us to tears. Some lead us to insights about ourselves. Some transport us beyond our parochial perceptions to act on behalf of others. Notions of God represent our greatest hopes or fears about the power that lies far beyond us or both beyond and within us.
Great writing about God is great art, as “true” as great literature, music, painting, and dance are “true,” addressing something deep within us, something that truly matters. I experience Un’taneh Tokef as great art.
One can never do a piece of music justice when “translating” it into words. Commentary on a poem is only rarely as sublime as the poem itself. With that caveat, I will attempt to put into words what this work of art means to me.
“This is the day of judgment”1: We are judged. Our children judge us. Our parents judge us. Prospective partners, current partners, and ex-partners judge us. Students and teachers, customers and clients judge us. When we interview for a job, audition for a role, apply for a grant, or bid on a contract, we are judged. Outside standards hold us accountable. Sometimes we live up to them. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we don’t know what the standards are until we have violated them. Sometimes we don’t learn we’ve violated them until years later when a child remembers a hurt we unknowingly inflicted, a friend brings up an unintended betrayal, or people we worked with recount a business decision that turned out to have been a serious mistake. We are judged.
“Your throne will be established with love [chesed] and You will reign from it in truth [emet]”: Chesed and emet are opposites. In a secular court of law, judge and jury endeavor to interpret the law and discern the facts. Love has no place in a court of law. Intimate, long-term relationships, however, would never survive such scrutiny. Life partners, parents, children, and friends learn the raw truth about each other. If they wish to remain in relationship, they have to find compassion for one another’s failings.
“And You will remember everything that has been forgotten, and You will open the book of memories”: Our lives are an open book. Nothing remains a secret. Secrets have a way of seeping through the cracks and bubbling to the surface. It is only a matter of time before we find ourselves exposed, as naked as the day we were born. Lies, half truths, obfuscations ultimately fail to convince. Better we should live our lives assuming that all our deeds, phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and financial transactions are known, recorded, remembered, and on permanent display in the Library of Conscience.
“And it will be read from: everyone’s signature is in it”: We write the stories of our lives. We are given certain genes. We may be born into poor or wealthy families; during peace or wartime; to nurturing, neglectful, or even abusive parents. But how we respond to those circumstances, how we play the hand we have been dealt, is up to us. God merely reads what we ourselves have written.
Moreover, our choices do not disappear into thin air. They leave their mark. Our deeds matter. As insignificant as they may seem at the time, our deeds have a lasting – sometimes irreversible – impact. People may remember what we have done long after we have forgotten.
“And a great shofar will be sounded and a thin whisper of a sound will be heard”: Revelations may come to us when we listen to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Maria Callas’s Tosca, Moshe Ganchoff’s chazanut, or Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; or when we behold Mount Rainier, the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, or Central Synagogue in New York. But revelations also arrive in less dramatic ways: in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the dwarfed trees above the Arctic Circle, the call of a bird, the cry of an infant, a realization that grows over time—even in the silence of a corpse.
“Truly You are judge…” ; “As a shepherd searches for his flock”: Judge and shepherd play different roles. The shepherd who “has his sheep pass under his staff” is the same shepherd who “makes me lie down in green pastures, who restores my soul” (Psalm 23).2 The shepherd’s job is to protect his sheep from predators and accidents, thirst and starvation, and to find and rescue them if they wander off and become lost.
How can one be both judge and shepherd? Parents who impose expectations upon us may also care for us. A teacher who grades us may also encourage us. An employer who could fire us may stop us from doing something foolish, steer us back on course, and never tell a soul.
“On Rosh Hashanah they will be written down, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed3 … [But] t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah help the hardship of the decree pass”: What could sound more final than a diagnostic test result, a divorce decree, a death certificate? And yet even the most final of “judgments” may not be the last word. T’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah4 help the hardship of the decree pass. They don’t tear up, annul, cancel, avert, or rend the decree – they temper it. They won’t cure a disease or restore a loved one to us, but they may attract people to our sickbed or to our house of mourning who make us smile, laugh, or even cry with joy. They may restore to our lives a sense of connection, purpose, or peace – like rehab, which doesn’t eliminate an addiction but teaches us how to live with it, doesn’t erase the damage we have done but insists we own up to it and attempt to repair it. I have seen people turn their lives around. It’s not easy. But I have seen it: Remaining sober or clean. Reconciling with estranged children or parents. Getting back on one’s feet after emotional or financial devastation.
Have you ever seen a desert after a rain? Or a lava flow? On the Big Island of Hawaii are two volcanoes. Their eruptions destroyed everything in their wake – forests, homes, roads – and left great swaths of black lava hardened into a ropy or a razor-sharp jagged surface. The barren landscape is frightening to behold. What power! But on the wet side of the island, the rainy side, vegetation pushes through the black swaths of death. And as the years pass, more green appears. Underwater, the hardened lava has become home to numerous varieties of coral, which shelter and nourish thousands of beautifully colored fish. Rain could not stop the flow of the deadly lava, but rain could ultimately turn the barren volcanic landscape into a foundation for life. Like rain, t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah can bring new life to a barren landscape.
“You…write down their sentence”; “[You are] quick to forgive”: When a human judge issues a verdict, it may be appealed. A convict may be released for good behavior before serving a full term. More merciful than an earthly court, God holds the divine judgment in abeyance awaiting our repentance until the day of our death.
God sets no statute of limitations on t’shuvah. Asking for forgiveness, even years after the fact, may go a long way toward mollifying a person we have deeply hurt. Showing a sincere willingness to change may soften the hardened heart of those who loved us once. And if they are not mollified, they should be, for that is how God would react to a penitent soul: “slow to anger and quick to forgive”. That is the way we should react as well. Yes, we judge, we bear grudges, we recall hurts, we may even hoard them. We may be completely justified. But if those who have hurt us do genuine t’shuvah, no matter how long it takes them, it is our job to let go of the anger we long harbored.
“You will decide the end of all creatures”; “You do not want the dead to die”: No one lives forever. Some things are simply not in our hands. We may have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer or manic-depressive illness or heart disease. But we have also been given minds to study diseases and sometimes find treatments and cures, to anticipate and sometimes avert accidents, to predict weather and sometimes to mitigate the impact of earthquakes and floods.
“Their origin is from dust” 5; “You are … everlasting”: No matter how healthy or careful or righteous we are, we will all die. But some elements of the universe preceded us and will outlast us: energy, light, change, atoms, force, mass. So, too, elements of culture endure: love, hate, fear, gratitude, longing, satisfaction. Ideals, too, live on: freedom, responsibility, goodness, justice, truth. These are “everlasting,” or as enduring as anything we can imagine.
“Your name suits You”; “You named us after You”: Something of us, too, endures. What we teach the next generation may be taught for generations after. One deed of loving-kindness may send ripples into the future. We are part of an ongoing chain of humanity, of Jewish tradition. Our lives are fleeting, but we may write books, establish foundations, compose music, generate ideas, found or revitalize synagogues that will nurture generations long after we have died.
Despite our failings and our inescapable mortality, at our core resides something enduring and worthwhile. Perhaps it is “the faith of those despised and endangered that they are not merely the sum of damages done to them…[but] a connective link in a long, continuous way of ordering hunger, weather, death, desire and the nearness of chaos.6
Our work may have a greater impact than we will ever know. (Bach was less well known during his lifetime. Van Gogh sold only one painting while he was alive.) We should act with the conviction that we may impact the world for generations to come.
“Act for the sake of”: The poem closes with an urgent appeal to God. Looking back over the entire poem, perhaps all the imperfect verbs are not statements of present fact (as they are commonly translated) or of a future of which we are certain but, rather, appeals to God for a future for which we fervently hope. Perhaps the poet is not asserting but pleading: “May the limits of our lives be set by You, God, rather than by the negligence or cruelty of fellow human beings. May we be judged by You, rather than by critics or competitors who judge us falsely or without mercy. May the quality of our lives reflect our worth, rather than the vagaries of chance.”
Un’taneh Tokef rings true to me as an artistic wrestling with impermanence and death, with deeds and their consequences, with power and powerlessness, with fear and reassurance, with mistakes and second chances.
- Many of these reflections first appeared in Margaret Moers Wenig, “The Poetry and Power of Paradox,” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, vol. 51:2, Spring 2009, 52-74.
- The connection between the ro’eh in Un’taneh Tokef and the ro’eh in Psalm 23 was made apparent to me by Professor/Rabbi Raymond Scheindlin one Rosh Hashanah, years ago. At the words, k’vakarat ro’eh edro, ma’avir tzono tachat shivto, he sequed seamlessly into a well-known melody for Psalm 23.
- For reflections on “How many will pass on and how many will be created…who by fire and who by water…” see Wenig, “The Poetry and Power of Paradox,” 68–69, n11.
- For my understanding of t’shuvah, t’fllah, and tzedakah, see Margaret Moers Wenig, “Feeling Like a Bowling Pin,” in I Am the Lord Who Heals You: Reflections on Healing, Wholeness, and Restoration, ed. G. Scott Morris (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 67–76.
- See Wenig, “The Poetry and Power of Paradox,” 62.
- “Sources XV,” in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: Norton, 1993). 108.
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, DD, teaches liturgy and homiletics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is rabbi emerita of Beth Am, The People’s Temple.
“Meditations on the Poetry of Un’taneh Tokef” by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, DD is from Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef Copyright 2010 Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT.
For the text of the Un’taneh Tokef, see Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1996), pp. 107-110, www.ccarnet.org.