Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Unetaneh Tokef
One of the most striking (and at times disturbing) parts of the High Holy Day liturgy is the piyyut Unetaneh Tokef (Let us speak of the power [of this day]). The prayer, which describes God’s appearance before the angels, comes just before the Kedushah blessing. And it is the central section of the prayer that is best-known: a narrative of God’s scrutiny of humankind. Here God is described as “apportioning the destinies” of each person, to be written in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and to be sealed on Yom Kippur: “Who will live and who will die… who by water, and who by fire.” The final two paragraphs assert the power of repentance and God’s enduring self. For many, this prayer is among the most provocative of the entire High Holy Day season and demands a certain consideration of one’s own mortality.
The theology expressed in this poem: that God judges us for life and death—and decides what manner of death—during the Ten Days of Awe is always challenging. In a year marked by pandemic and civil and political unrest, it may be all the more so. Read the text and then journal: How does it feel to confront this kind of theology this year? How do you make space for liturgy that feels painful? Is this a text you feel ready to confront this year, or do you feel an urge to avoid it?
How does your understanding of “the power of this day” shift if the power is rooted in the vision of God’s grandeur or in God’s judgment?
This piyyut mixes both angelic imagery and metaphors of the natural world to contrast human impermanence with Divine immutability. In our current world of environmental disaster and climate change, how does the resonance of the liturgy change?
Write your own middle paragraph of Unetaneh Tokef: What are the life-threatening circumstances that seem to occur in our world without reason?
Is our teshuva more or less powerful if it comes about through a person wishing to avoid fatal consequences?
Within the text of Unetaneh Tokef, human beings are compared to “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.” Which of these similes resonates most deeply with you? Why?
How do you relate to the concept of Divine judgment?
Reading the word El (God) into Yisrael, this poem ends with the insistence: “You have included Your Name in our name.” What does it mean to connect klal Yisrael to the image of God portrayed in this prayer?
Death is a part of life, but it can be difficult to talk about. What are the ways you talk about death in your family? What parts of the conversation are hard to have? What parts of the conversation are easier?
The text of Unetaneh Tokef talks a lot about impermanence and the way many things in our lives don’t stay the same way forever. What do you enjoy about the world that is impermanent (maybe things in nature, certain foods, visiting different places)?