For many folks, the most dramatic portion of the High Holiday liturgy is the Unesaneh Tokef prayer. And the most emotional part of the prayer – at least for me – is the very graphic description of who shall live and who shall die.
For about 40 years, I have been leading the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as the ba’al tefilah, and it’s hard for me not to get choked up when I reach this point.
But it wasn’t always that way.
When I was much younger, and I had just started leading the Yamim Noraim services, it actually was very difficult for me to relate to this part of the prayer. After all, who today dies of starvation or by drowning or by fire?
In trying to understand and appreciate the prayer, I attempted to look at the words more metaphorically: who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition … who shall hunger for companionship … who shall thirst for approval … who shall be strangled by insecurity … who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity.
It made more sense to me that way, as it broadened the scope of the potential universe.
As I’ve grown older, however I’ve begun to look at the words more literally. Each year, someone else unfortunately seems to come to mind.
After 9/11, when I read the words “who by fire,” I thought of all the people who were incinerated in the fires in the Twin Towers; several years later, Rabbi and Mrs. Rubenstein of the Young Israel of Scarsdale, who had lost their lives in a tragic fire right before Pesach, immediately came to mind.
When I read the words “who by the sword” at the height of the terrorist attacks 15 years ago, I thought of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in Pakistan. More recently, when I read the words “who by choking,” I thought of a two-and-half-year-old baby, the grandchild of friends of ours, who lost his life when he choked to death on a grape.
“Who by plague”? Last year I thought of the Zika virus. Several years ago, when I read the words “who by water,” I thought of those who perished in the tsunami. A year later, I remembered those who lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina – and a few years later I thought of those who died in the Texas and Florida floods.
I’m not sure whether this change has occurred because I’ve gradually become more acutely aware of my own mortality – or because I’ve simply witnessed more of these types of tragic deaths.
God willing, we’ll never personally have to experience any of these horrible ends. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life in the coming year.