Yom Kippur 5779: Unatanah Tokef

By: Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh

This year when I started looking at the liturgy of Unatanah Tokef to speak to you now, I found myself unexpectedly desensitized to the question: “Who shall live, and who shall die?” Usually, when the time comes during the year to ask this question about the fragility of life, it gives me pause. But this year my first reaction was neutral. This year I pretty much thought: “*Sigh,* I guess it’s out of our control.”

Then I caught myself – desensitized to Unatanah Tokef!? What’s happening?! What about the end? T’fillah, t’shuvah, and tzedakah…? And again I was struck by the feeling of: I know this already. While I usually find these actions in the face of uncertainty inspiring, this year something was different.

What that is – I think – is that all year we’ve been asking this question weekly, if not daily. Who by school shooting? Who by police shooting? Who by neo-nazi? Who by cages? Who by poverty? Who by homelessness? Who by lack of access to health care? Who by hurricane? Who by climate change? What’s different is that in this past year we’ve been bearing witness to the fragility of life weekly, if not daily. It affects us, and these are terrifying questions.

So this year, how can we recalibrate our t’fillah, t’shuvah, and tzedakah – because it has to be better, because it needs to make a difference.

To help address this fear and navigate this liturgy, I would like to highlight novelist Karen Walker Thompson. She defines fear as our own “wild acts of the imagination,” our personal narratives of the dramatic and nuanced plot lines that we imagine what might happen if… And she suggests that if we read our our fears and uncertainties with wisdom and insight, they can become incredible gifts of clarity.

This way, we can adjust our t’fillah so we can live healthier lives, before our arteries clog or our blood pressure gets too high.  This way, we can make t’shuvah, and start a conversation before an unexpected phone call, or the resentment keeps us broken. This way, we can give tzedakah, to make the help and change happen in the world we already lament we didn’t make, and mother earth wishes we had.

And while this may not reverse God’s decree in our liturgy, it may help us configure our prayer, repentance, and charitable action, as we navigate these turbulent and tumultuous waters.