Unetaneh Tokef and Courageous Vulnerability

“All humanity will pass before You like a flock of sheep.  Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict”   (Unetaneh Tokef, High Holiday Machzor- Musaf Amidah).

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we have nowhere to hide.  This is hardly a profound statement, as our liturgy goes out of the way to remind us that God knows everything that we do, and that all things we did over the past year will be judged. On one level, God’s hyper-awareness to our deeds and vulnerabilities can and should intimidate us, as that is part of the reason this time of year is called the Yamim Noraim, which can be translated as the “Days of Awe,” but also as the “Days of Terror.”  Yet beneath a surface level reading of Unetaneh Tokef, what in many ways is the most fear-evoking prayer of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, is a way to see how this prayer encourages our vulnerability, and reminds each of us to look upon one another with the same compassion that God looks upon us when we become totally exposed.

In an essay on the literary themes of Unetaneh Tokef, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writes about how the use of the Hebrew verb avar, which means to “pass through,” guides us through Unetaneh Tokef and captures the ebbs and flows of God’s judgment. The first time the verb avar is used in Unetaneh Tokef occurs when we are told that “All humanity will pass before You like a flock of sheep,” evoking a God about whom many of us are terrified; distant, powerful, with thunder and lightening, judging us at every opportunity.   

However, the next lines of Unetaneh Tokef use the same verb with a completely different contextual meaning, as we are told, “Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living.” In this context, God acts as a shepherd to stray sheep, comparing humanity to the most vulnerable of society. This is the God who shows pity and compassion for our flaws, the God who wants us to succeed, the God about whom we need not be afraid. Rabbi Kaunfer argues that viewing the different images of passing before God demonstrates how Unetaneh Tokef is “about closing a gap in the connection between God and people, not about a judgment based on a checklist (Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef, Lawrence A. Hoffman ed., 101-102).

Unetaneh Tokef opens us up to the vulnerability of being judged by God, while reminding us that God wants us to find a way to judge one another with the same love and care by which God judges us. Furthermore, God’s compassion for our vulnerability should compel us to ask what we hide and keep secret from one another.    Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey write in An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization that most people in a typical organization work a “second job” that no one pays them for; pretending they have it all together.  Kegan and Lahey write:

“In a typical organization…individuals expend enormous energy protecting themselves. People hide parts of themselves, avoid conflict, unwittingly sabotage change efforts, and subtly enforce a separation between “the me at work” and the “real me.” In a never-ending quest to keep ourselves safe in the workplace, we allow gaps to form between ourselves and others, between plans and actions, and even between parts of ourselves” (101).   

We know the consequences of silence in Jewish communities, such as covering up instances of sexual abuse or financial impropriety.  But sadly, our communities also show silence around far more mundane issues, such as interpersonal conflicts, personal financial and health challenges, and fears and doubts about the Jewish people’s future.    If we cannot be courageous and open with one another about ordinary challenges that every person faces from time to time, how can we expect our leaders to be open and courageous when the issues are more raw and the stakes are higher?

This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we want to continue paying the price for creating a covenant of silence around who we really are when we set foot inside of our Jewish institutions.    It requires courage and comfort with vulnerability to reveal oneself in even the smallest way, yet the alternative is continuing to pretend that everything is fine, a state of affairs that is anathema to what it means to be in community, for a community is a place where people can bring their whole selves into a sacred space. Unetaneh Tokef subtly reminds us that radical openness is scary, yet if God can look at us with compassion when we open ourselves up to God, so too must we show compassion for others who have the courage to open themselves up to us.

Shanah Tovah Umetukah.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director of Synagogue Leadership at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), where he is also the Director of the USCJ Convention. Josh obtained a certificate in educational leadership from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a certificate in non-profit management from Columbia Business School. Josh is a recipient of the Wexner Field Fellowship and the Ruskay Fellowship for Jewish Professional Leadership. Josh lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, Rabbi Yael Hammerman, and their children Hannah and Shai. You can read more of Josh's writings by visiting www.joshuarabin.com.