How many times over the last six or so months have we uttered the question: “Who could have foreseen this?”
Standing in empty sanctuaries in front of livestreaming computers–who could have foreseen this?
Becoming accustomed to the now bizarre sight of every person around you wearing a mask–who could have foreseen this?
Posting annual back-to-school pictures of kids standing in their doorways and going back inside to log into school–who could have foreseen this?
And yet…someone did foresee it. We read that person’s brilliant and insightful words each year at this time. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the very climax of the morning service, we chant:
B’rosh Hashanah yikateivun, uv-Yom tzom Kippur yeichateimun…Mi yichyeh umi yamut, mi b’kitzo umi lo b’kitzo.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…Who will live and who will die. Who will live out the measure of his days and who will not live out the measure of his days.
In this iconic text–called Unetaneh Tokef–we reflect on our tenuous grasp on mortality and realize how fragile our lives really are. Over the course of the next year, people will come into this world and others will leave. Some will live long, full lives, while others’ lives will be cut short. And how might that take place? The text goes into painstaking detail as to all the ways we might meet our end.
I was always troubled by the tone of Unetaneh Tokef. It always seemed like such a quintessential Jewish text–it’s not enough to mention that people die. Instead, we need a laundry list of each possible peril that we can encounter. Was Unetaneh Tokef actually written by a nervous Jewish mother talking to her kids before they left the house each day? (“Wear clean underwear–there might be an earthquake today.”)
Rather, I picture the author of this text as being the guy who’s “seen it all.” He actually reminds me of the narrator in the Book of Kohelet–Ecclesiastes–who looks back over a long life and sums things up for the rest of us. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. What you think matters at any given moment probably doesn’t. Most everything is vanity and a waste of energy. Keep yourself happy and fulfilled.” (I always liked that Ecclesiastes guy.)
I remember sitting in shul as a kid and seeing this prayer. I got the general idea, but never paid much attention to the danger caused by earthquakes, fire, thirst, hunger, plague–not to mention wild beasts. Not exactly the kind of stuff most Jewish kids worry about. But as they say….Who could have foreseen this?
Each year of my life, I check off another line in that paragraph. I saw footage of the deadly tsunami in 2004 and then less than a year later watched as Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc and realized that people die by flood. Just this past week I’ve watched surreal images of what’s going on in the West and have been reminded that people die by fire. And now–all new for 2020!–yes, people die by plague. And not in some comfortably distant and primitive corner of the world–but down the street right here in the suburbs.
The author of Unetaneh Tokef intuited that simply writing a poetic text stating the obvious–that over the course of a year some people are born and others die would never have made any kind of lasting impact. Instead he tapped into the range of human experiences that he knew all of us would eventually encounter over our own lifetimes.
These words mean so much more than a list of potential tragedies that our imaginary Jewish mother is afraid will happen to us. Instead the person who wrote these words is telling us that even in the midst of all this–in spite of it all— we have the potential to live out the “measure of our days.” The implicit message of the High Holidays is to act and reflect now, because we live with the uncertainty of how much time we really have.