“Who shall die by fire, and who by water?” That haunting question accompanies a promise of divine justice in the defining and controversial High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. But the harsh liturgical words conceal a surprising message of consolation.
Yom Kippur is a trial, according to the text. We are the accused. And God is the judge, as well as the prosecutor, defense attorney, witness, and court recorder. We have been given every last chance to return to the right path, but if we still stubbornly refuse, God declares us guilty and metes out our just punishment.
When people suffer, in other words, it’s their own fault. Those who have died by fire or by water must have done something wrong. And if we miss them, we must have sinned, too.
This classical theology of reward and punishment goes back to Deuteronomy. According to Deuteronomy 11 — featured in m’zutot, t’fillin, and prayer books — crop-nourishing rain will fall at the right time only for people who keep God’s commandments. And, contrarily, people who stray from God’s ways are doomed. Good things happen only to good people, bad things to bad people.
In this regard, Unetaneh Tokef seems like nothing more than a poetic repetition of what we already know: we will thrive only if we behave well. But the compilers of the Bible knew something important about classical reward and punishment. They knew it wasn’t true!
The Book of Job — the Bible’s only full-length treatise on human suffering — is a nearly total rejection of suffering as punishment for sin. The righteous suffer just like everyone else, because misery is not a punishment, and it’s not deserved. The book of Job explains to the reader (though not to Job himself) that Job suffers through no fault of his own. In this sense, we all are Job.
Deuteronomy and Job stand on opposite sides of the theological argument over happiness and sorrow. Deuteronomy is intuitive and appealing: God is an all-powerful king. Job is nuanced and complex: God is an ever-unfolding enigma.
And this leads to the hidden message of Yom Kippur. Although the words of Unetaneh Tokef seem to align with Deuteronomy, the text references Job more than any other source!
In fact, the “still small voice” of the prayer mirrors Job 4:16, while the angels that come next match Job 4:18. Literally reading between the lines we find Job 4:17, which is not an answer to suffering but a question: “Can humans really be acquitted by God?”
Maybe. Or maybe not. The text of Unetaneh Tokef insists on justice. The subtext vehemently denies it.
Our natural inclination is to think that God alone doles out life and death, prosperity and pain. In spite of its troubling rhetoric, Unetaneh Tokef urges us to question that painful premise.