The prayer that epitomizes the High Holiday season has to be the Untane Tokef. It captures the sheer awesomeness and awfulness of the season. It's scary to boot! It basically says that you're going to die. Here are the choices (you don't get to choose) on how you will die... Yep. Fun, lighthearted stuff. Even the angels are freaked out. Everything you have ever done, even the stuff you have forgotten, is written in a book which is reviewed by God, a book which we sign off on.
The history of its composition is as intriguing as the prayer itself (I recite this from memory, it may be slightly different than the original account). A millennium ago European anti-Semitism was reaching one of its many peaks. In Mainz, Germany, though the Archbishop and Rabbi got along, the Pope was putting pressure to dissolve all ties between Christians and Jews and to convert as many as possible. The Archbishop told his friend, Rabbi Amnon that he had to convert to Christianity or die. Rabbi Amnon asked for some time to think, a request which his former friend granted in the form of three days. When R’ Amnon got home he was livid at himself for even considering becoming an apostate and waited the three days for the papal goons to drag him off. The Archbishop asked, “are you ready to renounce your religion?” The Rabbi responded, “I will only walk in the path of Hashem”. The Archbishop therefore ordered his legs be chopped off and repeated the question, to which Rabbi Amnon responded, “My hands only serve God”. His hands were chopped off. “Last chance”, said the Archbishop. “Let me speak the praises of the Lord” was Rabbi Amnon’s response. So he removed his tongue. He left the Rabbi a bleeding mass in front of the synagogue. It was Erev Rosh Hashannah when this happened. The Rabbi wasn’t dead but he didn’t have much time. In the morning right before the Kedusha, members of the synagogue placed the dying, legless, armless, tongueless rabbi in front of the open Ark, and right after the chazzan said the U’vchen which precedes it, the Rabbi miraculously sang(he didn’t have a tongue) extemporaneously, "בראש השנה תכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון... מיחיה ומי ימות..." “On Rosh Hashannah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die!”. Having completed his opus, the Rabbi expired before the open ark. After Yom Tov, the Rabbi came to the Cantor in a dream and repeated all of the words of the Untane Tokef, which the latter wrote down and instituted eternally as the preface to the Musaf Kedusha, scaring the bejesus out of people who have paid attention at services now for over a millennium.
Even without this remarkable story, which I love to regale people with at Shabbat meals (as some people at my table at a Hillel-wide dinner a couple of semesters ago will attest), there cannot be anything taken away from the awesome and awful power hidden within these words. Besides the numerous hideous ways listed that we can possibly die, there is a lot of beauty here. God is our Shepherd and we are His sheep. We do His Will, and He counts us. A shepherd has compassion for his sheep, even when they do stupid destructive things, after all, they’re just stupid animals. We must confront our actions.
קול דממה דקה ישמע. The great shofar is sounded and yet a small silent voice can be heard”.
Amidst the chaotic nature of the day, God listens to everyone. According to BT Brachot, If a simple shepherd says “thanks for the bread” in lieu of the Motzi before eating a meal, God accepts the prayer. The still silent voice of Bonche the Silent (who I mentioned in my Dvar Torah for Parashat Ki Tetze) is treasured by God. In the Midrashic accounts of the story of Esther, it is only after the children, condemned to an earlier death by the evil Haman, cry out to God from the dungeon that God tears up the heavenly decree against the Jews and turns the tables on the evil Vizier. There are so many examples in rabbinic literature and in the Wissenschaft des Judentums (to borrow an overused term)
“the meek shall inherit the earth”
"ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה", repentance, prayer, and righteousness will avert the evil decree. It used to be rendered "מבטילין את רוע הגזרה", that these things “cancel the evil decree”, however this is obviously not the case. Good people die along with the bad, and some of the most evil people can live to a ripe old age. Theodicy is a very serious subject in Judaism. How does someone wholehearted and righteous as Job suffer at the hands of God and The Satan? Jonah, to bring in a Yom Kippur example, doesn’t want to go to Nineveh to warn the Assyrians to repent. Why? Through their teshuva and fasting they were able to tear up the heavenly sentence for their own destruction… and go on to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel and wipe out 10 of its 12 Tribes. But they got their just desserts in the end. Anyone who oppressed the Chosen People did not stand the test of time. Even from the Jewish standpoint, we die just as everyone else does, and our good deeds mean bupkis in terms of if and when we are going to die. Actually, what seems to be expressed in this prayer is how you’re going to die. Will we live to a ripe old age or will we die untimely? Will it be in some horrible disaster or execution or will we die peacefully? Will we have a lot of money to leave to our descendents or will we be poor? When we are remembered, what things will be called to mind? Will we be remembered? Life and death, these are rightly out of our hands. What we have in our power is the ability to live virtuous lives. Even the poorest person must give tzedekah. The wealthiest shouldn’t feel any better than the poorest when they give tzedekah, even though they may give much more money. To quote the Prince of Egypt, “to one lost sheep, a shepherd boy is greater than the richest king”. Like so many things quality must be stressed over quantity. Using one of my current online obsessions as an example, Wikipedia, though it may seem more glamorous to make as many edits as possible, it is considered even better to vastly improve a single article. I have way too many facebook friends. It cheapens the entire purpose of friendship so much that I have begun to reject people that I don’t know (sorry if you’re one of them, message me in the way you actually know me and I will consider it, just don’t stalk me). Um, anyway, the message is that we all must make a positive difference in the world in whatever way we can. We admit that we are nothing. In the grand scheme of things we are as a driven leaf. Bonsche the silent was assigned this moniker. Dust in the wind, A passing dream.
But remember that the still small voice is heard amongst the chaos. Bonche was welcomed with open arms into paradise until he screwed it up with his mouth and insipid lack of ambition. We must aspire for greatness and still be grounded enough to realize that we are human and mortal. The crown of a good name exceeds all other types of crowns.
Humans need teshuva. I think the build up without it would lead to hatred, loathing, and murder. Teshuva predated the creation of the world, my Rabbi said Saturday morning at services. I said that I disagree with the Midrash and that teshuva was planted within the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If it was in the world beforehand, then only discerning minds could learn how to unlock it. The only one to never have Original Sin (another thing that got brought up in the discussion yesterday), I said, was Cain, who was chronologically born before the eating from the Tree. He had no concept of Teshuva, so when he felt Abel and God wronged him, he went out into the field and murdered his brother. When God asked what Cain had done, Cain infamously asked, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain shows no remorse, no teshuva. He can’t. He doesn’t know. He is filled with so much hate that he has no ability to vent or accept anything. Teshuva is foreign to him and if the entire world was filled with people like him, everyone would be dead. If God was not forgiving, then Noah and his clan wouldn’t have been saved in the flood or its aftermath either. It takes the ability to say you are sorry and the ability to accept apologies. Both of these things take the greatest resolve, courage, and in order to do it you have to “lose face” as the kids call it these days. Pharaoh was unable to listen to Moses because his heart was hardened. Likewise, so many of us have hardened our hearts, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to reason, to compromise, to peace. The Torah and the High Holiday liturgy suggest a cure, may we circumcise our hearts (metaphorically of course) to love God so that we may live. We need to learn to open our hearts to accept those who beg our forgiveness, just as God readily does for us, and we need to soften our hearts and tread on our egos to “lower” ourselves to apologize for wronging others. Then maybe, just maybe, we can live in peace.
Gmar Chatima Tova, May we be sealed for a year of goodness. Also, if I have wronged any of you in any way in the past, please accept my apology. I am also ready to accept people who have wronged me, just ask.