My Kol Nidre Sermon: The Haunting and Hopeful Words of Unetaneh Tokef

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The haunting words of Unetaneh Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass on and how many shall thrive. Who shall live on and who shall die. Whose death is timely and whose is not. 

As I spoke about on Rosh HaShanah, on the surface, this prayer seems to suggest that we have no control over our destiny. It appears that God determines our fate today by either writing our name in the Book of Life, thus insuring that we live another year, or leaving us out, guaranteeing our demise in the months to come. But, a closer look at this prayer teaches us that teshuvah (personal growth and change), tefillah (prayer or, as we discussed on Rosh HaShanah, living a life of gratitude) and tzedakah (doing our part to heal the world) can help to insure that our name is written in the Book of Life.

Tonight, on the holiest night on our calendar, I want us to dive even deeper into the words of Unetaneh Tokef and explore how this prayer, which has filled many of us with dread year after year, actually contains a precious lesson of hope which encourages us to feel confident that our name will be inscribed in the Book of Life.

You can see this message of hope yourself. Turn with me to page 871. Third paragraph down:

It is You (God) who shall open the Book of Remembrance (same as the Book of Life), but its contents shall speak for themselves, for it bears the signature of us all, which our deeds and our lives have inscribed.

God opens the Book of Life. But, God does not put our name in this book. Unetaneh Tokef makes it explicitly clear that we do this. Our actions allow us to sign in, to place our signature in this holy, albeit, symbolic book. This is a very empowering message if you really think about it.

So, how do we sign in?  Well, we go back to the line we focused on last week on page 876:

u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hageserah

When we strive to live meaningful lives, lives in which we challenge ourselves to grow, evolve, give thanks, and help others, we sign ourselves into the Book of Life. Our actions say : “Count me in this year; I want to live a meaningful life!”  Our actions, according to Unetaneh Tokef, give us the ability ensure that we are sealed in the new Book of Life that has just opened. Untaneh Tokef reassures us and gives us hope that last year’s shortcomings and failures will not bring about our demise this new year.  This is why tonight, during Kol Nidre we could all recite the words on page 695:

V’yomer Adonai: Salachti Kidvarecha/God said: I grant you forgiveness as you ask!

We don’t need to look back in fear. We can look forward with hope because by living a meaningful life, we place our signature in the Book of Life, guaranteeing that we will be sealed in the Book for another year! So there should be no despair in the sanctuary tonight. If you are willing to commit to a meaningful life in the year ahead and add your signature to the Book of Life of 5775, you can do so. It is up to you.

To help drive this point home, as you leave tonight or over the next several days, you will actually have a chance to add your signature to our own Book of Life in the hallway. Our Book will be open until sundown on Tuesday evening, October 14th – the last official day of judgment, the day the Book of Life is sealed, the day known as Hoshanah Rabbah. The Book does not close tomorrow night, You have some time. Once it is sealed, it will be placed in the ark in the library. As you sign in, commit to living up to your potential this year, promise yourself that you will grow, you will be grateful and you will share your blessings.  Add any note you want along with your signature as you sign in. Our Book of Life will visible in the library ark – there for you to visit throughout the year; there as a reminder that you committed yourself to live a life of meaning; there as a reminder that with the new year, we are offered a new beginning, a promise of another chance at life. We will open our Book of Life next year as the holidays begin and we are once again charged with reflecting on the year that has come to a close.  As we look at our signature next year, we will ask ourselves, did we meet our expectations? Did we live a meaningful life? If not, what will we change as we sign ourselves into next year’s Book of Life?

So, by teaching us that we can sign ourselves into the Book of Life by living a meaningful life, Unetaneh Tokef sends us a hopeful message: our names will be in the Book when it is sealed!

But, is this really the case?! Unfortunately, we know too well that just because someone signs into the Book of Life, it does not guarantee that that they will have an incredible year or that they will even be here physically to sign into next year’s Book. And this reality upsets us and tramples upon the message of hope that we were just talking about. But hold on! By focusing our attention on our signature that we place in the Book of Life, Unetaneh Tokef is quietly imploring us not to give up the hope that quickly. Unetaneh Tokef, if you listen closely, is telling us that despite the unpredictability of life, we do not need to despair. Rather, the prayer is telling us something very deep….that despite the uncertainties of life, we can be confident that our existence never ends. Unetaneh Tokef is promoting an ancient Jewish concept, one that is not spoken about often, but one that has been embraced by some of the greatest Jewish thinkers over the centuries, including the famous Moses Maimonides. This is the concept of immortality – the idea that, while our bodies might give out, our soul, our lessons, our inspiration – all of these things are sealed in the Book of Life with our signature; all of these things continue even if we physically slip away from this world.

To help us understand how Unetaneh Tokef teaches this ancient Jewish belief, I want to share words that our congregant, Joel Dreher, shared last month at his wife Jody’s unveiling. Jody passed away just days after last year’s Book of Life was sealed. This being said, everyone who knew her would agree that there is no doubt that she inscribed herself into the Book of Life of 5774. We know that her spiritual signature continues to touch us. Joel writes:

You’re not in the next room doing yoga, you’re not snuggled next to me in the bed. There aren’t numerous jars in our pantry full of indescribable kelp like stuff (Jody was a health nut) nor are there jars in my luggage prompting the TSA folks at the airport to want a further search. There aren’t trays of wheatgrass.   It’s quiet.   I don’t hear you teaching yourself a song nor a dance nor a rap to use for your students (Jody was a music teacher). Now I have to get my dose of you by inadvertently seeing a leftover handwritten reminder note to yourself to buy non pasteurized milk or probiotics and having your handwriting hit me because it came from you and is still here.  

Let’s appreciate for a moment the simple yet awesome power of Jody’s written words – written by her own hands. Look at what these words have given to Joel. They serve as a testament of Jody’s very existence, helping to share her lessons despite the fact that she is no longer physically here. Her written words help Joel discover that Jody is still present, still teaching and still inspiring. Her written words have given Joel a glimpse of Jody’s immortality.

In the same way, by referencing our signature in the Book of Life, Unetaneh Tokef is teaching us that while some who sign in to the Book of Life this Yom Kippur will not physically be here next Yom Kippur, their spiritual signature in the Book of Life will be here, serving as a reminder that they were, during their lifetime, committed to living a meaningful life. Their spiritual signature and the meaningful life that inscribed their signature into the Book of Life will forever serve as proof that they were indeed inscribed in the Book of Life this year. And realize, their spiritual signature can never be removed. It will forever capture their life and their determination to live. It will inspire those left behind to live meaningful lives.

Immortality is how we combat the unpredictability of life. By living a meaningful life and, thus, according to Unetaneh Tokef, inscribing our signature in the Book of Life, we secure our legacy. We make an impact on the people in our lives. An impact that insures that, when our time comes, we won’t be forgotten. Yes, it is unsettling that we don’t know for certain if we will be blessed to sign next year’s Book of Life. But, despite this, we do know with great certainty that we can sign this year’s Book and, in doing so, guarantee that, no matter what – we make it clear that this year, we choose to embrace life. Further, by signing the Book, we can be confident that our spiritual signature, a testament of our life of meaning, will speak for us and be our immortality.

Interestingly enough, while Unetaneh Tokef quietly encourages us to think about our own immortality, many of the other prayers and rituals of Yom Kippur push us to accept our own mortality. We are actually rehearsing our own death on this holy day. We dress in white, symbolizing the ritual shroud we will be buried in at the end of our days. We fast, making our body feel weak, as if we are slipping away from life.  We recite confessional prayers like Ashamnu (p. 424) which are recited before we die.  And even Unentaneh Tokef pushes us think about our own death: “how many shall pass on and how many shall thrive.”  While this push to accept our own mortality might make us feel helpless and hopeless, it should not.  Sure, this day makes us face the fact that our death is, hopefully many, many years from now, inevitable and not at all predictable. But, Unetaneh Tokef, by urging us to embrace life and sign into the Book of Life is teaching us to take as much control as we can. Unetaneh Tokef is begging us to own our legacy, asking us: “How will we be remembered?” If we don’t know the answer to this question, if we don’t like the answer to this question, today is the day to change your life. Unetaneh Tokef is, like the blast of the shofar, a wake up call! Unetaneh Tokef is pleading with us: “HAVE AN IMPACT; MAKE A DIFFERENCE; LIVE A LIFE THAT MATTERS and allows you to leave a mark on this world – a mark that is expressed by the values and lessons that your life instilled within others – a mark symbolized by your signature in the Book of Life. A mark that is your immortality.

So, yes, some of the messages of this day are unsettling. But, in the end, I see Yom Kippur as a day of hope, a day that tells us to “grab life by the horns” and live it fully. If we do so, we get a new beginning. We get to sign into the Book of Life. We get to leave our indelible mark. If we live the lessons of this day, we can take comfort in the fact that our life and our lessons are immortalized by our spiritual signature.  We can enter this new year confident that we are in control of our destiny and the life we are living will leave a deep, meaningful and lasting impression.

By signing ourselves in – may we seal ourselves in the Book of Life for a year of great meaning.

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