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Dealing with Difficult Prayers on the High Holidays

Posted on August 31, 2017 by Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed:

How many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it;

Who will live and who will die;

Who will reach the ripeness of age, who will be taken before their time;

Who by fire and who by water;

Who by war and who by beast;

Who by famine and who by drought;

Who by earthquake and who by plague;

Who by strangling and who by stoning;

Who will rest and who will wander;

Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled;

Who will be calm and who tormented;

Who will live in poverty and who in prosperity;

Who will be humbled and who exalted ….”

These words come from the Untaneh Tokef prayer that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Over the years, many congregants have expressed to me their complete disdain for this prayer.  They do not believe in a Book of Life and referring to God as a judge who decides our fate for the coming year offends them.  Alternatively, I have always loved this prayer.  To me, it is the essence of these Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe).  The word nora means “awe,” but it also means “fear” or “terror” or “dread.”  These are serious days where we are engaged in the serious work of self-transformation.  It is both awesome and terrifying.  These are the days where we confront the truths we have avoided all year long:

  • that nothing is permanent;
  • that each of us will one day die;
  • that this knowledge should compel us to live our lives filled with as much meaning, grace and goodness as we can.

As Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig writes in the study texts for Untaneh Tokef in Mishkan HaNefesh:

“Why do I, for one, want to hear all of the Untaneh Tokef, not only the comforting parts? An answer comes from the octogenarian violinist Olga Blum, founder of Barge Music in Brooklyn. [She] was once was asked by the mayor of New York: ‘Why don’t you put the barge on pilings so that when a large boat passes and causes a wake, the barge won’t rock anymore and the piano won’t ever roll across the stage during a performance (as it once did)?’  Olga replied: ‘I will never put the barge up on pilings because all beauty, all art, is in some way a wrestling with impermanence and death.’”  Untaneh Tokef is 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.”

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