Introduction to Unatanneh Tokef
Published in fredbernstein.com
Remarks on Rosh HaShanah 2016 (5777)
The Rabbi asked me to speak about the Unatanneh Tokef in part because not long ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She thought I would have something to say about the age-old question: “Why me, God?”
Why am I suffering this fate? Why has God chosen me?
But that’s not a question I’ve ever asked. I have friends who haven’t lived as long as me — lost to AIDS in their 30s, to car accidents in their 40s, to heart attacks in their 50s. And in several cases to suicide. And I have other friends who are bravely fighting terminal diseases. Diseases that are potentially much worse than Parkinson’s.
So I’ve gotten off easy.
The question I do ask, when Rosh Hashanah approaches, is how can I be a better person?
We are told that during this special season, God decides who shall live and who shall die, based on how we’ve behaved in the past year. This makes God a kind of Santa Claus: “He’s making a list, and checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” Santa Claus, not being God, could only withhold presents. God threatens to withhold life.
According to the Unatanneh Tokef, the prayer we’re about to hear, if you’re righteous, you’ll be inscribed in the book of life. If you’re wicked, you won’t be. Like smoking or not wearing your seatbelt, misbehaving will decrease your life expectancy.
But does God really shorten the lives of the wicked?
For most of my life, the radio has insisted that “only the good die young.”
Which is it? Is there really a price to pay for bad behavior?
And if there is, why does God give us so many chances to change our wicked ways?
God doesn’t just give second and third chances. In my case, since my bar mitzvah in 1969, I’ve had 47 chances to change. I’ve celebrated 47 Rosh HaShanas and 47 Yom Kippurs as an adult male. Always promising to change my behavior, and alway falling short. Why does God give so many chances? Knowing I’ll pray and repent, in synagogue, but then probably not change much in once the holiday is over.
Here’s how I’ve come to think about the question.
Two weeks ago, I arrived at a restaurant very, very hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day. I was waiting for Chuck, my husband, who had somehow gotten lost on the way to the restaurant. I needed to eat, and the restaurant wouldn’t seat me until my entire party had arrived. And I had no idea when Chuck would find the place.
I was so hungry that I started to yell at the host who wouldn’t seat me. I was mean.
And I eventually got my meal, but I felt so bad about my outburst that I couldn't fall asleep that night. I was — and I’ m not overstating this — dying inside.
When I don’t behave the way I know I should, I die a little.
So here’s what I believe: God does take away life from those who misbehave, but not by shortening our time on earth.
He takes away life by letting us die a little. Inside.
I raised this topic on Facebook a few weeks ago, and one of my friends said that she, too, dies a little when she doesn’t behave as well as she’d like. She wrote, “I feel that every little ‘dying inside’ experience is a mini-Rosh Hashana — a reminder that I am capable of behaving better, always accompanied by a resolution.”
Who shall live and who shall die? You can’t answer that by reading the obituaries. Only we know if we’re living or dying.
Whether you believe in God or not, there are important lessons in the Torah and the liturgy. About the importance prayer and repentance and charity. By praying (which I tend to think of as reflecting), and repenting (which to me means apologizing), and performing acts of charity, it’s possible to undo the death you've felt inside -- to inscribe yourself in the Book of Life.
Not just on Rosh Hashana, but every day of the year, including all those mini Rosh Hashanas.