Revisioning Unetaneh Tokef

crossposted from JVoices
One of the reasons I love going to CBST is that there is always another perspective, if not from congregants or clergy leaders, than in the various texts that are offered on the holidays. One that I have enjoyed, and that my sister upon visiting for Rosh Hashanah immediately turned to copy, is an interpretive vision of Unetaneh Tokef by Jack Riemer.

Let us ask ourselves hard questions
For this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste
In the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life
Or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home
Or was the affectionate word left unsaid?
Was there a real companionship with our children
Or was there a living together and a growing apart?
Were we a help to our mates
Or did we take them for granted?
How was it with our friends:
Were we there when they needed us or not?
The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
The unnecessary gibe: did we say it or hold it back?
Did we live by false values?
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves?

Were we sensitive to the rights and feelings
Of those who worked for us?
Did we acquire only possessions
Or did we acquire new insights as well?
Did we fear what the crowd would say
And keep quiet when we should have spoken out?
Did we mind only our own business
Or did we feel the heartbreak of others?
Did we live right,
And if not,
Then have we learned, and will we change?

One of the reasons I enjoy this interpretive version is because it takes the idea of teshuvah out of the framework of sin or repentance, and returns it to the very idea, no pun intended, of return. Teshuvah, at its best, is about seeing how we have missed the mark, how we have strayed and how we can return to our best selves. It is acknowledging that the ideal is not perfection, but rather a baal teshuvah, a person who is self-reflective, who recognizes barriers and learns from them. Teshuvah is a check of the soul.
The language of sin that ends up being used more often than not today has been incorporated more so through assimilation into dominant Christian cultures, and the idea of original sin–that we must cleanse ourselves of these awful sins that are inevitably in us. Yet this is not the heart of what teshuvah is about.
Last year I took a class with SVARA that explored the themes of T’shuvah that I thought readers might find useful in reframing, or rethinking, our relationship to t’shuvah as this: that teshuvah is a process that helps you remove a barrier from becoming a more full human being.
Here is a simplified list of Rambam’s Nine Steps to Doing T’shuvah, adapted from Chapter 2 of MaimonidesLaws of Repentance:

1. Recognize what you did as wrong or hurtful.
2. Feel remorse about having done it.
3. Stop doing it.
4. Remove the wrongdoing from your thoughts.
5. Resolve never to do it again.
6. Make restitution for any damage you may have caused.
7. Appease the person you’ve hurt.
8. Confess to God (although I’d make an addendum here since not everyone believes in God, to fill this in with what makes sense for you if you do not) of your wrongdoing.
9. You’ve made complete t’shuvah when you’re confronted with the same situation or opportunity, but this time do not do it again.

This last point is the one I am reflecting on the most as of late, and I really think is key. When we return each time, we never return to the same place. Sometimes we feel we cycle “backwards”, sometimes it feels like we’re just moving along. But when you feel real change in your life, you really feel it, and I have become more and more aware that the times when change feels most potent and tangible are the times when I see myself confronted with the same situation and chose a different path, a different way of responding–when I am not only aware of my actions that are hurtful to myself, to others, or both, but when I am actively able to stop repeating those wrongdoings. I am, indeed, most grateful for those moments.
Sometimes it is hard to reflect on these issues. Different organizations have created t’shuvah worksheets for those who are looking for an opportunity to engage with these thoughts more, including Tikkun, and Jspot posted a great piece on the themes of teshuvah for children. Here are some other options here and here.
Use these in ways that make the most sense for you, that is not about guilt or shame, sinning or redemption, but rather truly becoming the fullest person that you can be, not only individually, but also collectively. It is no surprise to me that the mandate, the call for social justice that many of us pursue comes from these texts. In that spirit I leave you with the infamous words by Rabbi Tarfon:
“It is not your duty to complete the task,
Neither are you free to desist from it.”
shana tovah u’metuka

5 thoughts on “Revisioning Unetaneh Tokef

  1. I very much enjoyed your post, and I would like to see more posts of this type as part of Jewschool. However, this word infamous, I do not think it means what you think it means. For many years, my definition of infamous was based on the one given in The Three Amigos: very famous. It was maybe 12 years after I first saw the movie that I found out the definition of infamous is actually this:
    1. having an extremely bad reputation: an infamous city.
    2. deserving of or causing an evil reputation; shamefully malign; detestable: an infamous deed.

  2. On re-envisioning unetane tokef I take a little different approach than Jack Reimer…..
    Who Shall Live
    A layer of Saran Wrap
    A shpritz of lemon juice
    These red delicious will remain white
    Without sin.
    Who shall live?
    And who shall dye their hair?
    Who by pestilence?
    Who by Pilates?
    Nobody knows.
    What is this ‘Jeopardy’?
    Well it’s
    Another year, spaceship earth has made one more elliptical orbit
    -Planetarium narrator.
    And I’m still here.
    We’re still here.
    God is the King
    May the thorny crown be replaced by something more comfortable,
    Say with a sweatband,
    Perhaps in size six.
    Heed the cry of the shofar!
    Heed the blast of the shofar!
    It is the cue for the kitchen help,
    off with the Saran Wrap.
    -daniel s. brenner

  3. Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”:
    And who by fire, who by water,
    who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
    who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
    who in your merry merry month of may,
    who by very slow decay,
    and who shall I say is calling?
    And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
    who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
    and who by avalanche, who by powder,
    who for his greed, who for his hunger,
    and who shall I say is calling?
    And who by brave assent, who by accident,
    who in solitude, who in this mirror,
    who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
    who in mortal chains, who in power,
    and who shall I say is calling?

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