Who By Fire, Who by Plague? Judaism's Haunting Prayer/Unetaneh Tokef

With so much uncertainty in the world, there is one thing we can say with 100% certainty: we will all die. Death a fact of life, but that doesn't make it any less tragic. Nearly 3 million people in the US died in 2018; that's just under 1 in every 100 people in the US. Some died of old age after living long lives, while others were killed by cancer, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and even at the hands of fellow human beings. Unetaneh Tokef reminds us of the scary, but very real fact of our mortality and vulnerability.

(מג) בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן. וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן. מִי יִחְיֶה. וּמִי יָמוּת. מִי בְקִצּוֹ. וּמִי לֹא בְקִצּוֹ. מִי בַמַּֽיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ. מִי בַחֶֽרֶב. וּמִי בַחַיָּה. מִי בָרָעָב. וּמִי בַצָּמָא. מִי בָרַֽעַשׁ. וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה. מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה. מִי יָנוּחַ. וּמִי יָנֽוּעַ. מִי יִשָּׁקֵט. וּמִי יִטָּרֵף. מִי יִשָּׁלֵו. וּמִי יִתְיַסָּר. מִי יֵעָנִי. וּמִי יֵעָשֵׁר. מִי יִשָּׁפֵל. וּמִי יָרוּם:

(43) On Rosh Hashana their decree is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will pass away and how many will be created, who will live and who will die; who will come to his timely end, and who to an untimely end; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by the sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by the plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who will be at rest and who will wander about; who will have serenity and who will be confused; who will be tranquil and who will be tormented; who will become poor and who will become wealthy; who will be brought to a low state and who will be uplifted.

Reflecting:

  • Each of these is worth pausing to think about. People dying before their time - in building fires, due to starvation, drowning, natural disasters, and being mauled by animals - these are not figments of the prayer author's imagination. Every year, thousands of people actually die in the real world under these circumstances. How does the reminder that we all face the threat of such an unfortunate end sit with you? In the midst of a global pandemic, does such an untimely death feel far away, or does it feel immanent? What reaction do you think the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is trying to inspire within you?
  • Unetaneh Tokef seems to attribute guilt to those who suffer and die. This theology has many detractors. How might you reinterpret this section of Unetaneh Tokef to more closely align with your beliefs about God and why bad things happen to good people?
  • As this section opens, on Rosh HaShanah, also known as Judgment Day, our names are inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, they are sealed. There are 10 Days of Repentance in between the two holidays to prevent a permanent inscription in the Book of Death, however. If reflecting on the ways people might die inspires fear or anxiety, how might the opportunity the 10 Days of Repentance presents inspire hope? If you are afraid of not being inscribed in the Book of Life, how would you go about making a change?