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Unetaneh Tokef

09/07/2021 10:42:53 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Sam Gordon Headshot

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live, and who shall die.

Unetaneh Tokef, a medieval prayer, premodern in its thinking, assuming a supernatural God and ascribing to God our traumas, our fears. It imagines a frightening God, a God of reward and punishment: “Who by fire, who by water, who by sword, who by beast, who by hunger, who by thirst, who by earthquake, who by plague…?

But so many of these words are no longer merely theoretical for us. We are living in a different age. We are living in a time of plague. We know the fires of California and Nevada, the Pacific Northwest, and Colorado. We can't blame God for our human failures of global warming and climate change. We experienced drought at the waters of the Colorado River, or the inundation of waters from Hurricane Ida, the floods of Tennessee, in Florida, and Texas. To ascribe all of this to God's anger is to absolve us of our responsibilities and failures.

Who by hunger, who by thirst, who shall be rich, and who shall be poor?” Our economic disparity and inequality in our own nation, as well as elsewhere, are results of human action and not God's will.

Who by earthquake?” We know the devastation in Haiti, but we realize it was exacerbated by poverty and corruption.

Who by sword?” We live with the epidemic of gun violence in our own city streets. God did not cause urban inequality or a lack of hope and a future for youth.

Who by plague?” Our own fear right now of this pandemic of COVID-19 is very much with us. But we know how much of that is spread as a result of pandering of conspiracy theories, the disregard of science and medicine, the polarization of our nation that has lead to a demonization of authority and expertise.

Unetaneh Tokef. Perhaps it was once seen as acts of God, but no more. We cannot dismiss our own responsibilities. It is not God but us. Uteshuvah, utefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin et roah hag’zerah. Repentance, prayer, and charity temper the bitterness of the decree. We are taught that it is up to us to act. We pray as if everything depends on God, but we have to act as if everything depends on us.

Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784