One of the most moving and central prayers on both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is Une’taneh Tokef. It is a highlight of the services as it defines the meaning of the High Holidays more than any other prayer:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created. Who will live and who will die…who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be agitated, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will suffer degradation and who will be exalted.
At issue with the “written and sealed on Rosh HaShana/Yom Kippur” duet is that it sounds like our year is set and that nothing can be changed. To counter this we turn to the self-same prayer where we loudly proclaim its crescendo, “But Repentance, Prayer and Tzedaka can avert any evil decree.” Whatever heavenly decrees might be against us, it is ultimately in our hands and within our power to make our year a better one.
While this prayer is a very stirring part of the service, I have always felt that its origins have cast a very negative light upon it. Many machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) claim it came from the story of the 11th century Rabbi Amnon of Mainz who happened to be quite close with the Bishop of his city. As was often the case in medieval Europe, Christians tried to convert Jews to Christianity and the Bishop made such an offer to Rabbi Amnon. The Rabbi said that he would think about it for three days as a delay tactic while he thought of a way out of this quandary. But he soon regretted his response, fearing it gave the Bishop the wrong idea. Namely that he was serious and contemplating switching teams.
He spent the three days in prayer and fasting and didn’t return, whereupon the Bishop sent his henchmen to fetch Rabbi Amnon. The Rabbi requested that his tongue be cut out to atone for his verbal misrepresentation but instead, the Bishop ordered his hands and legs amputated – limb by limb – as punishment for not obeying his word to return and for refusing to convert. His limbless torso was then taken to the synagogue on Rosh HaShana where he spontaneously chanted this prayer and then expired soon after.
The story is visually upsetting to say the least and not an image we want stuck in our brain on the holiday. But I am going to remedy that right now.
In the machzor put out by the late Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, he notes that there is ample evidence that Une’taneh Tokef’s origins were not necessarily tied to this horrific event, if such an event occurred at all. There are a few pieces of evidence supporting this, one of them being that this prayer was discovered in the Cairo Genizah and would indicate that not only was it from hundreds of years earlier than claimed, but that it came from Israel and not Europe. (The Cairo Genizah is a collection of 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments that were found in the genizah/storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo and are dated as early as 870 C.E.)
I personally was quite relieved to discover this because I have always found that the background to this prayer had created a black cloud over it. The revelation of an alternative source is, I believe, an important lesson for Yom Kippur. Namely, not to be negative when you don’t have to.
Associations are very important and overly negative ones can caste a dark shadow. I sometimes think that the Galut (the Exile) has sometimes gotten the best of us Jews and we too often take the negative approach when it is not necessary to do so.
Whenever I hear of Jewish leaders, rabbis and others talking about “the crazy and difficult times we live in” I cringe. Difficult? In comparison to what? Europe of 150 years ago, 500 years ago, or any other time Jews have lived in the last two thousand years? We live better today as a Jewish nation than any other time except maybe Solomon’s. Being a Jew in the 21st century is certainly easier than at any time in the last two millennia. One has ample time to devote to study of Torah which is just a click away on the computer. Or how about visiting Israel in a mere half day, or less? You know what our great-grandparents would have done to be able to get to our ancestral homeland so easily? And not just that, but to find a bustling modern nation, not just a pile of rubble and dust, as it was for so long.
I have written before about having a positive outlook and how it is crucial to one’s success and that the more positive approach you take, the more good will happen to you. We certainly see this in relationships where King Solomon poignantly tells us in Proverbs, “As water reflects back a face to a face, so too one’s heart is reflected back to him by another.” Simply put, if you are miserable and unhappy, your attitude is contagious and those around you will magically become the same. But if you are upbeat and see the goodness in people and situations, then the people around you will feed off of that and you will have created a cycle of happiness and success that in turn revisits you.
Not only is this true on a personal level but on a national one as well. For decades we have been told by all kinds of world leaders, press pundits and the like that Israel needs to make more and more concessions lest it be in a worse predicament with the Palestinians, the Arab world and the world at large. “A Pariah Nation!” we will become, they declare. We regularly heard how there is a narrow window of opportunity for Israel to make peace and we had better get on it or all hell will break loose. Israel is going to be further isolated and gloom and doom are surely to follow unless we act soon.
All of it seems so pedestrian these days. A number of years ago I recall the reaction from former Defense Minister, the late Moshe Arens after the ho-hum reaction to Palestinian efforts for statehood at the UN: “It turns out that the tsunami predicted to hit Israel … went the way of so many other predictions that have been made in recent years.” Yup, nowhere.
So this Yom Kippur, let us collectively do teshuva on the negative attitudes that we have allowed to seep into our lives – both on a personal and on a national scale – and that has brought us down from the greatness that is our destiny. I am not saying we should let our guard down, especially when it comes to Israel’s security, or that we should see everything with rose coloured glasses. But let’s make a commitment to view our lives and our people in a more positive light, which in fact is a truer reflection of our situation today. And while Rabbi Amnon and so many others may have indeed suffered throughout the ages, let’s show God that now is the time when all we want is for Life, Joy and Goodness to fill the world.
It starts by focusing on the Life, Joy and Goodness that He is giving us right now.
Here come bad news, talking this and that
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Because I’m happy