Introduction to Unetaneh Tokef

By Sandy Abramson

Rosh Hashonah Day 2

I believe that ritual is the way we attempt to deal with the unknown – and unknowable. The Unataneh Tokef is our way of dealing with death – the greatest unknowable!

Flashback: It’s a very dark morning in 1954. I’m in bed with my mother and sister and my father is on his way to Michigan to be with his baby sister whose son, my cousin Arthur, 2 months younger than me and named also for our grandfather, has drowned. 20 years later, his brother Mark will be killed because he refuses to turn over the cash in a 7-11 where he’s clerking because he doesn’t make enough as an Air Force private. WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: It’s a Saturday morning in the fall of 1959 and an ambulance is outside on the street. Two doors away, our neighbor, 58 year-old Mike Perlman, has died of a massive stroke while he was sleeping. His daughter Lenny is my good friend. When my father comes home from work, I cling to him and won’t let him go anywhere without me for days. WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: Still the fall of 1959. My 34 year-old cousin, who has 2 small children, dies of a brain tumor. I’m left in my grandmother’s house while all of my relatives go to the funeral because everyone wants to be at the funeral and you can’t leave the house alone in case the dead person returns to an empty house. When my 28 year-old sister walks into my grandmother’s house, I cling to her because if I don’t, she might die and leave me alone. WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: My college years, 1963-1968, are bookended by the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and intersected by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. And contain the horrors of the Vietnam War. WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: From the time I’m 13 until I’m 22, I go to at least 10 funerals – uncles, aunts, grandfather, grandmother, a kid in my Hebrew class, the woman who cleaned our house and took care of me, my parents’ friends. A lot for a young kid. WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: It’s Rosh Hashonah 5774. I’m sitting with tears streaming down my face as I listen to the Unataneh Tokef and think of Terry at home; wasting away, unable to eat on her own; increasingly unable to walk or move very much; silent, as she has lost the ability to talk. Knowing she will not live through this year. Someone hands me a hanky. It doesn’t stop the tears but it reminds me of my father who always used a hanky and feels good to be near someone. WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: I think of all of those Black and brown men and women and children who have died at the hands of police. What did Tamir Rice have to repent for at the age of 12? Did Sandra Bland not pray? Did Eric Garner not live righteously? WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

Flashback: Through my life, I have sat in my different schuls on the High Holidays and listened to the eerily beautiful Unataneh Tokef, thinking of those I have lost. I wonder how all of these people that I knew and loved could have died. I think of those I love and will lose. I think of myself. Didn’t they repent, didn’t they pray, didn’t they live righteously. Haven’t I done the same? WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE

What is “this day” as described in the Unetaneh Tokef? Literally, it is our yearly day of judgment — Rosh Hashanah. But, is this day really different from every other day? Or is it, in truth, every day? If we repent and pray and act righteously every day, can we avert the “severe decree” by practicing tshuvah, tefilah and tzadeka forever? Is death truly a sever decree or, as we all know only too well, a part of life. Repenting, praying and living righteously every day, not only on Rosh Hashonah, can be their own reward. Let us pray and open our hearts and minds to this reward as we recite this Unetaneh Tokef for our time.

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