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The Unetanetokef Prayer: Living for Each Day

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We proclaim the great sanctity of this day, a day filled with awe and trembling. On this day, God, we sense Your dominion, as we envision You on a throne of judgment, judging us in truth, but with compassion...The great Shofar (ram's horn) is sounded; a still small voice is heard...On this day we all pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd counts sheep, making each of them pass under his or her staff, so You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature.



On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born. Who shall live and who shall die, who in fullness of years and who before. Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast; who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall rest and who shall wander; who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted; who shall be impoverished and who enriched, who shall be humbled and who exalted.



But returning, repenting, prayer and deeds of kindness can alleviate the severity of the decree. (Abridged translation of Unetanetokef Prayer)

I have always been overwhelmed by the Unetanetokef prayer, which speaks about "who shall live and who shall die." Each year, as we take in the awesome words, I am reminded about the fragility of life, the fragility of each moment. When I was younger, it used to produce greater fear in me, shaking me with the turbulence of a crashing sea, reminding me that one day I will die, and all of this will end. My fear of death, my fear of life in this world ending, kept me up at night, rattled my soul, in many ways paralyzed me. I would cry during this prayer, weeping with a sense of isolation and darkness.

As I have grown and experienced God in new and dynamic ways in my life, I have had a shift in perspective toward the shofar gadol, the loud blast of the ram's horn, and have come to focus more on the kol d'mma dakah, the still, small voice. This still, small voice, a voice that resides within me and beyond me, now brings me hope, new vision and inspiration, reminding me that each day is not only another step toward death but, more importantly, another opportunity to embrace life, create new words and ideas, form new loves, embrace hope and soar. While I know that death is always imminent, and that the Unetanetokef prayer reminds us of that eternal truth, I now focus on what I can do in life to make each moment count, to make each day a reflection of the divine gift that is given to us, individually and collectively, as we walk through this life, grateful for another year. What will be written and what will be sealed this year, each year, is a partnership between us and God. While we ultimately cannot know who will live and who will die, of course, we can help shape how we live and, to a certain extent, how we die. The kol d'mma dakah, the still, small voice, is the breath flowing within us; the awakening to which the shofar calls us, from this perspective, is a recognition of the quality and power of each day. We are not called merely to wake up for a few hours on these holy days and then fall back asleep for the rest of year. As the beautiful poetic translation in the new High Holy Day prayer book offers us, "Who shall truly be alive and who shall merely exist" (Machzor Lev Shalem, p.1, Unetanetokef).

After a decade in the congregation, I am constantly amazed at how our human stories, especially around the deathbed, are repeated. We want to live differently and not only realize the love around us, the power of a sunset, the wonder of a kiss, the joy of a child's laugh, when it is too late. Let us remind ourselves that the words of the Jewish morning liturgy, modeh ani l'fanecha, "I am grateful before You God," is not just a nice opening line of prayer; it is the wisdom of God here on Earth. Let us remind each other that while the great shofar is sounded on these holy and awesome days, its reverberations can be heard each subsequent day of the year, if only we attune our ears to hear them. The reverberations are the kol d'mma dakka, the still, small voices, the portal to living a life alive to the holiness in each and every moment.

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