My very first time leading High Holy Days was as a student rabbi in Sandusky, Ohio. We got to Unetaneh Tokef, the challenging and powerful prayer where God is seen as inscribing and sealing “who shall live and who shall die.” In my most solemn voice, I read: “Who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast…”
When I got to the line, “Who by strangulation and who by stoning,” I heard a 13-year-old sarcastically whisper to his brother, “Oh, that’s totally how I’m going to die.”
Unetaneh Tokef is jarring to us as modern Jews. Yes, some of it is the theology of the prayer, but a lot of it is the fact that many of the ills described are ones we don’t worry about any more. In many ways, Unetaneh Tokef is now obsolete.
Since it’s still a central part of the High Holy Days, though, we need to think about how we read it. We might take the prayer more metaphorically, as the Reform Movement did in its old machzor saying, “who shall burn with the fires of greed…who shall strangle for lack of friends.” (Gates of Repentance, 311)
But what would happen if we did take Unetaneh Tokef literally, and truly ask the questions it poses? This year, just how many will die by earthquake, and how many by plague? How many will die by famine, and how many will die by thirst? And if we look at the questions that way, what would the theology then become?
I’m not asking this to be morbid — there is a reason those ills were enumerated in this prayer, and it’s because they were real issues 1000 years ago, around when this prayer was written. Drought was a huge concern. Robbers might come at any moment. Crusaders had put whole towns to the sword.
Compare these concerns to what we worry about now. Are there real things to worry about? Of course. But you’re not worried that you might get gored by a wild beast. Or die this winter because you don’t have enough food. Or that you’ll be stoned to death. And this isn’t a miracle — it’s a result of human agency.
In fact, Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, remarks that “human ingenuity has been vanquishing the major hazards of life, including every one enumerated in the prayer.” (168) Let’s take, for example, the line that inspired songwriter Leonard Cohen: “who by fire, and who by water?”
Over the last 100 years — not 1000, just 100 — the number of people who died by fire or by water has gone down by 90%. How? Through “lifejackets, lifeguards, fences around pools, instruction in swimming and lifesaving, and increased awareness of the vulnerability of small children. who can drown in bathtubs, toilets or even buckets.” (182)
Or think about a burning building. It now makes the news, because it’s so rare, and it’s because of “the now ubiquitous sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire doors, fire escapes, fire drills, fire extinguishers, fire-retardant materials, and fire safety…” (183) Fire departments now focus much more on prevention than responding to a conflagration.
Buildings are built to better withstand earthquakes, so even as they occur, their death toll is much lower than it had been. Criminal justice reform has helped lessen cruel and unusual punishments, so death by stoning is off the table. Medicine has essentially eradicated plagues like smallpox and polio, and others are on a steep decline — between 2000 and 2015, for example, deaths by malaria fell by 60%. (66)
None of this is a miracle. It’s a result of decades (if not centuries) of small, progressive steps to enhance our safety, our health, and our livelihood. None of these advances happened at once, and none were done by only one person. They came about through organizing, through education, through legislation and through regulations.
When it was written, Unetaneh Tokef had a view of God as all-powerful, and we were the objects of God’s whims. But theology has changed. We now see ourselves are partners with the Divine in enhancing our world. We humans have taken enormous strides to lessen the impact of all the problems this prayer outlines. We went from saying, “Well, I guess it was just her time to have died by strangulation,” to saying, “Let’s use the Heimlich maneuver.”
Yes, there are still uncertainties in this wold that may kill us: gun deaths, or mental illness, or climate change are just a few of the most pressing ones today. But we don’t view them as Divine mysteries. We see them as problems to be solved. If we’ve been able to essentially eliminate the fears in Unetaneh Tokef, we can do the same with the challenges we face today…if we invest the time, energy and resources to do so.
We often forget just how much progress we as a species have made in enhancing our world. It’s not a perfect world, but it’s certainly better than it was 1000 or even 100 years ago. So let’s continue to work to save more lives, give people more hope, and empower them to lead full and meaningful lives.
In other words, let’s transform to the ills we face today into sarcastic jokes for 13-year-olds fifty years from now.