Who Shall Live…


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


At this juncture of our worship, we approach, Unetaneh Tokef, a theologically controversial prayer of the Holy Days. “Who shall live, who shall die, who by fire, who by water…” Many have strong feelings about this prayer. Let’s take a brief poll as to whether or not we should even read it: Raise your hand if you would like us to NOT read the next prayer? Raise your hand if you would like us to read it?

As I participated in recent meetings about a future Mahzor for our Reform movement, there was a great deal of debate regarding this prayer with its traditional theology of: God who determines all; God who is Judge and Shepherd; who reviews our permanent record, rewarding and punishing accordingly. Is that the kind of God in whom we believe? For some the answer will be, “yes,” but for many others, “no.”

Albert Einstein once wrote: “I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation.” Isaac Mayer Wise, the 19th century founder of Reform Judaism, eliminated this prayer from his prayer book and that continued into the small black Union Prayer Book II. Recognizing that this prayer engenders distress, even anger and tears, Dr. Larry Hoffman, Reform Judaism’s most eminent liturgist writes: “I deliberately omit the God of Unetaneh Tokef, the God who seals our fate with death by fire, water and strangulation.” (even though we try and hold onto it and make sense of it)… good classical reformers should simply say.. “it causes unnecessary pain and is therefore wrong. We can willingly believe what we know is not true; we cannot happily abide what we know is hurtful.”

Rabbi Marc Saperstein does not want the 11 year old girl sitting before him on Rosh Hashanah thinking that with teshuvah, tefillah and tsedakah she has the power to remove her mother’s cancer. A simplistic reading could prompt that conclusion.

Still, in discussing this prayer and reading about it, others find it quite meaningful, even essential to their High Holy Day experience. One individual wrote, “I never saw it as a negative, blame the victim poem. To me it was actually comforting.” In our current Mahzor, it is one of the only prayers with an introduction, almost an apology for including it. On Rosh Hashanah it provides historical reference and Yom Kippur, practically a disclaimer. Before we decide if we will read this prayer this morning, I would like to unpack the text, its history, implications and application.

Commonly attributed as Rav Amnon’s poem from the Middle Ages, its roots are much older. In the Mishnah we read that four times a year we are judged, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being the time that we pass before God, like troops marching in review or sheep passing muster. It further speaks of Yom Kippur as the Day of Judgment, with the Book being open and God rendering a verdict, accompanied by the great shofar sounding. However, before final sentencing, if you will, you can influence the Judge. The Babylonian Talmud suggests this can be achieved by four acts: tsedakah- charity or righteous deeds and tefillah- prayer, two of the elements we find in our prayer. Additionally, crying out, a form of confession or lament, plus changing one’s name and behavior can impact judgment. That is to say, you have the ability to transform yourself and your actions. These two additional aspects are what we mean by teshuvah- repentance. Thus we appeal to God’s merciful nature as our fate is in God’s hands.

Rabbi Margaret Wenig advocates for its inclusion, but not that it should be read literally. She first points to the figurative language of the poem and believes the message to be that our deeds have repercussions. While many escape consequences of behaviors, (I can think of one octogenarian who proudly proclaims, I’ve been smoking, gambling and drinking for years.) some do not. At the same time, the inverse is not a given. When one suffers from disease, it is ridiculous to ask what sinful behaviors caused the illness.

To this point, one person writes: “A belief in the power of repentance, prayer and charity is at the core of our religion. I don’t take this prayer to be a literal bargaining, but a profession of faith- that my life, which is like a particle of dust, matters; that my acts make a difference. It’s not that they buy me time or health, but that they give me life for the time that I have.”

Rabbi Wenig further argues that liturgy sometimes requires strong imagery.

Powerful language grabs our attention. Good liturgy is an amalgam of traditions and voices. It does not all have to be comforting, telling us how good we are. Sometimes it can smack us on the head. “I know that we are judged, that our deeds have consequences, that some of our fate appears to be in our hands and much of it does not, that some mistakes we can fix, others we simply have to live with.” (p. 57)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin teaches that repentance, prayer and charity will not avert the evil decree, but will mitigate the bitterness of the decree – After performing these acts, we connect with something bigger and become more accepting of what life decrees for us. We all occasionally experience life as evil, bad, sad, challenging… life and death, reversals and pain. Accept it and deal with it, not asking, “why me?”, but knowing that the world is still better because of us.

One of the phrases in this poem/prayer that confronts us most dramatically is “who shall live and who shall die.” I heard it invoked, during a conference call along with 1000 other rabbis in preparation for the Holy Days, by President Barack Obama. Let me share how surreal it was sitting at my desk, phone in hand, with the President of the United States speaking to me! Talk about a Day of Awe! Regardless of one’s politics, this was the President of the United States, our country. Just as I previously attended a New Orleans gathering when invited by President Bush, I accepted the invitation to hear what our President had to say to me.

As you can well imagine, the issue he addressed with us was the need for Health Care Reform in our country. He was not asking us to support his plan or any of the specifics in the various proposals that have come forth. He outlined broad principles that he and many others believe are essential if we are to improve the plight of our fellow Americans, reiterated in his speech to the joint session of Congress. And then our President asked me to address this issue with my community as I saw fit. I am honored to do that in the context of this prayer.

If you are like me, you are probably disgusted by the way the health care debate has devolved, perhaps even a little frightened. It has become obnoxiously partisan, with each side using scare tactics, advertising, false information, even intimidation to defeat the opposition. I am deeply concerned about the tenor of the attacks. While I do not believe that opposition to the President’s plans is tantamount to racism, any more than opposition to Israeli policies is automatically anti-Semitism. But I do know that many mask their anti-Semitism by opposing Israel. Similarly, I firmly believe that racism does play into the current debate.

We who lived through David Duke should recognize that reality. He too spoke of big government, those who might be taking advantage of the system, immigrants stealing jobs from real Americans. Duke’s heyday was during a time of economic uncertainty and fear for our future, not unlike our own. Otherwise good people linked themselves to his candidacy as he voiced their frustrations. We may be experiencing similar phenomena in America today and must be vigilant.

As happens all too often with serious issues, it is more a battle to see who can defeat whom and not, what is in the best interests of the American people. Yes, this is a political subject, but it is also very much a moral, religious issue, one that is already impacting many of us and deserves our attention this morning.

Without breaking any of the HIPPA confidences, let me ask by a show of hands:

How many here have not been covered with health insurance at some time during the past 2 years?

How many have altered your lives in order to keep coverage?

How many have been denied coverage by your insurance companies for procedures or drugs deemed needed by your physicians?

How many feel you are paying way too much for health insurance?

How many wish to see all Americans covered by health insurance?

As you can see, the Healthcare debate is not simply an intellectual exercise. If we, who are here today, generally a more affluent, advantaged segment of our society are impacted, how much the more so as it effects the poor, the widows and orphans, the disadvantaged of society to whom we as Jews have always felt a deep commitment and religious obligation of concern. Combine that with the economic downturn in our country, where we all know of friends and family who have lost jobs or cannot find jobs, and with it the health insurance concerns. Million of Americans are underinsured or have no health insurance at all.

So what is it that the President asked of me and that I ask of you this morning? In the tradition of the Talmudic rabbis, let us respectfully listen to all sides of the healthcare debate and cease demonizing those with whom we differ. Let us find those areas of greatest concern, upon which most will agree (it is simply not realistic that all will agree on anything), but at least most agree and try to address them. I believe this includes:

First- a plan that enables all people to have access to quality medical care

Second- every American needs to be able to purchase affordable coverage, regardless of illness, age or pre-existing conditions.

Third- it needs to be affordable with Providers receiving a fair income and Recipients paying a fair price.

Fourth- Affordability includes a system of sustainability for the government to perpetuate the program without the periodic scares that by such and such a date, we will run out of money.

These are among the most basic aspects that belong in a Health Care plan and which I believe a large majority would like to see enacted. The details are where the politics and the lobbyists come into play. There are religious voices that are also calling for exemptions for some health professionals to not be compelled to perform any procedures that compromise their faith. I can respect that, as long as those same voices allow those procedures to be freely offered for those whose faith beliefs are not opposed. I am obviously referring to abortion, but also other issues. The loudest shouts do not mean they are a majority, perhaps not even in Louisiana.

Friends, health care reform is not simply a political issue. It is a moral concern and a matter of faith. As Jews we have deep commitment to healing for all. Compassion for the poor, the widows and orphans, the have-nots of society is an essential message of our tradition. Speaking out for those whose voices are weak is part of our prophetic calling. This issue has galvanized groups in our country, as no other in recent years. We need to be educated about it and let our elected officials know our feelings, even if their public stances are opposed to our own. Insist that partisanship and posturing are unacceptable. Demand reasonable, respectful, honest debate.

When it comes to the question of who shall live and who shall die, as raised in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we realize that what we do and say, or don’t do or say, can make a difference in our world. Certainly that is the case as our nation debates health care reform.

I will also add, as I have from this pulpit previously, that we personally have the ability to impact our own health. Recently I received generic birthday greetings from my insurance company. Not so gently they suggested that since I am aging, please be sure to receive all the appropriate tests, including annual check ups, blood tests, eye exams, colonoscopy, mammograms for women, chest x-rays, blood pressure and more, along with a battery of shots. There are those in this room with health insurance who fail to do the minimum. I can testify that there are also countless people sitting here, who are healthy because they took the initiative to be examined, catching problems before they became critical. In addition with proper diet, and even moderate exercise we improve our chances for longevity. One of our members, an avid fitness enthusiast, recently shared with me following cardiac bypass surgery, that while his regimen did not prevent the need for surgery, it delayed it to his late 70s, instead of early 60s as was the case with previous generations in his family. Our actions can personally influence how we live and when we die.

Applied to the grand scheme of life, the answer is not as clear. As one of my colleagues has written: “Unetaneh Tokef is an artistic wrestling with impermanence and death, with deeds and their consequences, with power and powerlessness, with fear and reassurance, with mistakes and second chances. Perhaps the ultimate paradox is that life hurts, but is still worth living.” (p. 150)

In a moment we will read and listen to our confusing prayer. I invite you to apply whatever interpretation of its words brings meaning to you. Or perhaps you will choose to simply skip over it theologically as totally irrelevant to what you believe. However, none of us are free to ignore its mandate for action in this world.



* The insights of Rabbi Margaret Moers Winig in her article “The Poetry and the Power of Paradox”- CCAR Journal, Spring 2009 were very influential in shaping my thoughts for this sermon.



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