Yom Kippur Day – Prayer and Unetaneh Tokef – 2013

Compiled by Rabbi Sherril Gilbert
Maybe you know the story of Chayim. Chayim prays to God. “Ribono shel olam, Creator of the Universe, I come to you for shacharit, for minchah, and for maariv—for services in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and each time I ask that You give me a little mazel, a little bit of luck. Let me win the lottery. It doesn’t have to be the big one, just a few hundred thousand or a million or two. Ribono shel olam, why donʹt You respond?ʺ

Surprise! God answers. “Chayim, youʹre a nudnik. If you want to win the lottery, go buy a lottery ticket!”

Poor Chayim. We laugh at the silliness of the story; but like him, I think many of us struggle with prayer and how to do it and what happens when we do it.

And yet, here we are: Gathered together in this place, we lift our voices in song and Prayer on this holiest of days. We seek to purify our souls; to break open our calcified hearts and beg forgiveness of those we’ve hurt in the past year; to find and seek an intimacy with the Divine. Yom Kippur is an awesome event of catharsis and renewal, a time to cleanse the body and the soul, to deepen our consciousness of all the joy and all the suffering in the world and ultimately seek self-transcendence. This is the essence of Yom Kippur—the power to change and to transform ourselves and – by extension – our community, our world.

To pray—to truly pray—means that we take a leap of mystery into the unknown. For a brief moment, we let go of our experience of the mundane world and imagine the world—and ourselves—in a different way. To pray requires vulnerability, openness. It is an act of trust for which there is no obvious reward. Praying, at some level, is one of the most absurd things we human beings can do.

To actually pray, “we need to abandon the safe ground of ‘how the world is’ and be open to experiences grounded in a very different set of assumptions. Prayer comes out of the struggle between these two places: the place we leave… and the place we enter”1.

So, what is it that we are we leaving tonight? And what are we entering into?

There is a Chasidic story from the early 19th century which illuminates the place that we enter. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was a pious, thoughtful rabbi. He was intelligent, wise, and rarely displayed emotion in public. One year, after leading Yom Kippur services where the congregation had prayed with exquisite love and sincerity, where they opened their hearts to each other, where they begged forgiveness of one another, where they held each other in trust and joy, in sorrow and grief, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was overcome by the power of their prayers. Trembling, with tears in his eyes and joy upon his lips, he cried out: “My heart is on fire!”

My heart is on fire.


To have such a powerful experience in prayer: Imagine. To feel our hardened hearts open wide, to experience joy and wonder and radical amazement, to confront our longing and our hope and our inspiration, to have our hearts blaze forth with a prophetic vision of a world that is whole, just and peaceful. What a holy experience!

But, rabbi, you may be thinking, this is just the story of a man long since buried, one righteous and pious soul; this isn’t really for all of us, right? Or is it?

Actually, I believe it is. I am talking about prayer because I know if we do not nurture and tend to the gardens of our own souls, then our capacity to harvest the fruits of justice and beauty for the world will wither and die on the vine like Jonah’s gourd. Without an inspiring spiritual life, without a commitment to transform our own hearts, without the power of prayer to offer a compelling vision of what the world could be, how could we imagine a world redeemed?

Prayer does not separate us from the world; rather, a rich prayer life connects us more deeply to the world around us.

We know what we don’t want our prayer life to be: we don’t want it to be fiction, stultifying, drudgery. All $5 words for boring. We have all been to services that have had no oxygen, where we wished we could be anywhere else, where the rabbi or the cantor or the music leader or the preacher was devoid of emotion or passion or conviction; or the liturgy was false or soporific or just silly; where the congregation didn’t seem any more interested in praying than in taking out the trash. And I don’t know about you, but that is not a worship experience I want to be part of!

When I read and study the High Holy Day prayerbooks, I want a prayer experience that lights my heart on fire. I want to be moved, to be shaken, to have my buttons pushed, for this one day of the year at least.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one of those that evokes in me those wild emotions of BOTH wonderment and dread. It is a strange prayer. A WOW prayer. We say this ancient prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Amidah, during the third benediction, the one for holiness.

I want to read some of the text of this prayer, and it is challenging, so please bear with me. (pages 24-26 of machzor if people want to follow, but the text is a bit different.)

And so, let holiness arise to you, for You, God, are our sovereign.
Now we declare the sacred power of this day, which is the most awesome and solemn of days, when Your rule is established over all, and Your throne set in place by the power of love, and You come forth to govern in truth. It is You Who are our judge,…It is You Who shall write, You Who shall seal what is written, …. You alone can remember what we have forgotten; it is You Who shall open the Book of Memory.

The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard. The angels are in terror,
for judgment is to be decreed against the inhabitants of both earth and heaven.
And You make us pass before You, and number, and count, and determine the life, one by one, of all who have lifebreath within. You decide for each creature its cycles of life, and You write down its destined decree.

B’rosh hashanah yikeh-teyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yecheteymun.
On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and revealed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

How many shall pass on, and how many shall thrive,
Who shall live on, and who shall die,
Whose death is timely, and whose is not,
Who dies by fire, and who shall be drowned,
Who by hunger, and who by thirst,
Who by an earthquake, who by a plague,
Who dwells in peace, and who is uprooted,
Who shall live safely, and who shall be harmed,
Whose life is tranquil, and whose is tormented,
Who shall be poor, and who shall be rich,
Who shall be humbled, and who is raised up!

But tshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah – repentance, prayer and charity – make easier what God may decree, make easier what life holds in store, make easier facing the world, make easier facing ourselves. Down to our last day of life, we are given a chance to return. For as is Your name, so is Your praise – slow to be angry, quick to forgive; You do not desire us to die, but only to change and to live.

B’rosh hashanah yikeh-teyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yecheteymun.
On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and revealed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

How do we make sense of that line, “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”? What does it mean that God “seals” fate for us? Why is there suffering in the world; why do some people find love while others are left lonely; why do innocent children die; why is there evil; what motivates acts of terror and genocide? How can we reconcile our horror at these kinds of traumas with our need to believe in a loving and benevolent God? Does God write down every action each of us will take in the New Year, and does God then seal the book on Yom Kippur like a huge iron gate swinging closed? I wish I could give you a definitive answer. For now, all I have for you is this one possibility to consider.

This day of Yom Kippur is an opportunity for us, a day on which we are being called to take the time to sit with the truth of the lives which we ourselves have written. Who have I been over the last year? Who do I think I will be in the year to come? Who do I hope to be? We’re also called to sit with the uncomfortable truth that we don’t know what the year will hold. Who will live, and who will die, in 5774? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? Who will be joyful, and who will experience the darkness of depression? Or, in this day and age, as a clergy friend asked: who by peanut allergy and who by bee sting?

This prayer is difficult because it forces us to confront something that we would rather deny – that each of us will someday die. And rather than give answers, the prayer only seems to open up more questions – the most challenging ones. We so badly want these questions answered but it’s true that what we most want to know is, by definition, unknowable. What is fair and just may be irreconcilable with what enrages, confuses, and confounds us, and that is what is so hard to comprehend.

Here is one way to think about all this. There is a line in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that goes, “You open the Book of Memory. It reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it.” That line alone says to me that we’re not talking about God as some kind of cosmic accountant, taking note of each action and selecting a corresponding fate. No, I believe that the Book of Memory is something we each write for ourselves.

And every action I take inscribes itself in the Book of Memory. I inscribe and seal my signature in that book with everything I do, and everything I don’t do; every kind word I speak, and every unkind thought I harbour. God doesn’t write the Book of Memory for us: we write it ourselves, and at this season of the year, it “reads from itself” — or, to use a more modern metaphor, at this season of the year, we sit down and watch the Netflix version of our own lives.
The prayer also says “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the harshness of the decree.” Tshuvah is re-turning to what is Holy; tefillah is prayer or self-examination, and tzedakah is righteous giving. The prayer doesn’t make the claim that these three things can change what’s going to happen; but they can sweeten it. They can soften it. If, God forbid, someone I love is going to get sick and die this year — no amount of teshuvah, tefillah, or tzedakah on my part or on theirs will change that reality. Our cells do what they do; our bodies do what they do; and sometimes we cannot be medically made well again. But teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah – they can change how I experience that reality. They can change how I choose to experience the world.

And finally the prayer says: “You [God] do not seek our death, rather that we turn from our ways and live.” In other words: God isn’t up there somewhere waiting for us to screw up so that God can strike us down! That kind of toxic theology exists in the world, but it’s not a Jewish way of thinking about God. In the Jewish understanding, God is always yearning for us to make teshuvah, to turn and re-turn, to re-orient ourselves so that we are facing in the right direction again, to consider our lives and try to make better choices. I think there’s something especially meaningful about hearing that as we move through this day of intensive repentance when we struggle to align our lives again with our highest ideals. No matter how little or how often we’ve missed the mark, God is always yearning for us.

The purpose of this prayer then, for me, is its emotional journey and its ability to lift me up. At the moment of a birth – or when I am awestruck by a sunset, a rainbow, an ocean, or a snowfall — or when I sing to someone while they are dying – I connect with what is sacred and holy. I touch infinity, just for that instant.

I still experience sorrow. I am mortal, and so are those I love. And terrible things still happen: they could happen to me, they could happen to my loved ones, they could happen to hundreds or thousands of people. But when I try to live with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, I strengthen myself; I root myself; I make myself more able to face not only the times when life is bitter, but also the times when life is sweet.
Human life is fragile, vulnerable and finite. We are given three divine gifts that enable us to transcend the limitations of the human condition: tshuvah – the gift of reaching within, tefillah – the gift of reaching beyond, and tzedakah – the gift of reaching outward. Together, these form a disciplined rhythm and spiritual practice for daily life. Together, they provide a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world. We are challenged by the awesome power of this prayer, this season – not to fall, but to fly. Through repentance, prayer and generosity we learn, we model, and we teach the great lessons that come from adversity, and our destiny becomes a tapestry designed and woven by the choices we make every moment of every day.
When it says “Vechotem yad kol adam bo” – that we each sign our name in the Book of Life it means that we get to edit this book, we get to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, we get to write the next chapter. We are not just spectators: we are the ones who seal it with our signature.

Keyn yehi ratzon – May it be so.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

1 Aryeh Cohen, Sh’ma, September 2010

 Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (2013)
 Linda Hirschhorn (Sermon, 2004)
 Rabbi Laura Duhan Caplan (2008, 2011)
 Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
 Merri Lovinger Arrian
 R’ Sharon Brous
 Rabbi Edward Feinstein
 Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar
 Rabbi Shefa Gold

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