Look around you on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur as the powerful, frightening piyyut (liturgical poem) of UnetaneTokef is sung during the Musaf prayer.
This awe-inspiring section depicts how we all pass before G-d on the annual Day of Judgment like sheep passing in front of their shepherd, one by one. It symbolizes, more than any other part of the service, what judgment really means. Its power lies in not only describing how we each appear individually before G-d, but it also lists the possible scenarios for our own private year to come.
How many shall pass away (before entering this world i.e. miscarriage/stillbirth) and how many shall be born.
Who shall live and who shall die.
Who will die at their appointed time and whose life will be cut short.
Who by water and who by fire.
Who by the sword and who by wild beast.
Who by famine and who by thirst.
Who by earthquake and who by plague (pandemic).
Who by strangulation and who by stoning.
It’s a time when many of us think back over how our last year and those of our friends and relatives played out.
How many of the above scenarios seemed unbelievable a generation ago but are sadly now part of the regular news broadcasts? Whether you call it climate change, a force of nature, or an act of G-d, so many people are affected by wildfires, floods and droughts and many areas of the world suffer barbaric terrorism.
Do you remember how you felt on Rosh Hashanah six months after the beginning of COVID-19? Who didn’t know someone who had succumbed to this terrible pandemic? So many lived in fear of what tomorrow might bring.
And for those who live, will this coming year be one of peace and tranquility or worry and torment? Will their finances prosper or will they lose their money? Will they be successful or fail in their enterprises?
Legend has it that this poem was composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 11th century. The Bishop of Mainz wanted him to convert to Christianity. In an effort to gain time to decide how he could avoid what punishment he would receive for not converting, Rabbi Amnon is said to have asked for three days to consider the idea.
His request was granted but he realized what a betrayal of G-d it was to even give the impression that he was considering the idea. He begged the bishop to cut his tongue out for his blasphemy but the bishop ordered that his arms and legs be chopped off instead. As he was bleeding to death he asked to be taken to the local shul where he recited this poem in front of the Aron Kodesh and then died.
This tefilah brings chills to even the most laid-back congregants.
But we’re not left shivering and helpless. The piyyut continues to tell us how we can lessen or even change the judgment.
Repentance, prayer, and giving charity can avert the evil decree.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks זצ”ל past Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom says in his commentary on the machzor (the Holyday prayer book): Repentance is our relationship with ourselves, prayer is our relationship with G-d and charity is our relationship to others.
Rabbi Sacks points out that Jews don’t believe in fatalism or predestination. We can change and once we have changed we cease to be the person we were, the person who was destined to suffer.
The piyyut continues with how G-d is slow to anger. He doesn’t want to condemn us to death. He loves us and wants us to repent so he can welcome us back.
Ultimately, He is telling us, that our fate is in our own hands.