Unetaneh Tokef is one of the central prayers of the High Holidays. It paints a picture of God judging all creation, even the angels. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die … who by water and who by fire…” Some of us reject its theology of God meting out death sentences as punishment. But for some of us, Unetaneh Tokef can feel uncomfortably real.
The good things we want might not happen. Disaster might strike, God forbid. The central words of the prayer are actually true: some of us will be here next year, and some of us won’t. We don’t know who. We don’t know why. We confront, face to face, the fragility of our lives.
More than that, we encounter death. On Yom Kippur, we change our behaviours dramatically. Some interpretations focus on the ways in which we are imitating the angels. But we are also acting out our own deaths. We dress in white shrouds – the white kitel the service leader wears is also what we are traditionally buried in. We don’t eat, we don’t have sex, we don’t bathe – we are not fully living. And then, in the very last moments of the Neilah service to conclude Yom Kippur, we recite the Shema, traditionally the last words we say before our death.
We actually enact our own deaths and come through the other side.
People who have near-death experiences often report bursts of clarity and gratitude. You might be one of those people. We are all one of those people after Yom Kippur. We get the chance to be grateful for what we have, to make time for what’s important, to hold our people close and to celebrate the wonderful things in our lives. We don’t need to wait until, God forbid, something terrible happens. We can live fully, gratefully and wholeheartedly right now.