Here is the 1st paragraph of the Unetane Tokef Prayer:
וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּום כִּי הוּא נורָא וְאָיום וּבו תִנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְיִכּון בְּחֶסֶד כִּסְאֶךָ וְתֵשֵׁב עָלָיו בֶּאֱמֶת. אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן וּמוכִיחַ וְיודֵעַ וָעֵד וְכותֵב וְחותֵם וְסופֵר וּמונֶה. וְתִזְכּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחות, וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרונות. וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא. וְחותָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּו. וּבְשׁופָר גָּדול יִתָּקַע. וְקול דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע. וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יאחֵזוּן. וְיאמְרוּ הִנֵּה יום הַדִּין. לִפְקד עַל צְבָא מָרום בַּדִּין. כִּי לא יִזְכּוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ בַּדִּין.
Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seats, (counts and calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles – it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’- for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment.
The poem is quite difficult. I read it several times and had a very difficult time connecting with the words. Let me relate some stories I found that helped as an introduction and then I will conclude with some observations made by others and myself that allowed me to get a little closer to this poem.
So ask yourself, what about Rosh Hashana is ” awesome and frightening?” That seems to me the description of standing at the edge of a cliff.
Some historians believe that this was likely written by a Talmudic rabbi around 200-600 CE. This was a poem to exalt G-d and to put him in his place — the King sitting “up there” watching, remembering and judging everything those below are doing.
This must not have been an interesting enough reason to write this poem for the rabbis of the past several hundred years. Anther story has been told of a rabbi in Germany a thousand years ago who was loyal and helpful to the duke/ bishop of the region. The bishop thought so much of the rabbi that he asked him to convert to Christianity. The rabbi asked for 3 days to think it through. When he returned he told the bishop that is was impossible for him to convert. Feeling spurned the bishop cut off the rabbis arms and legs.
The next day just happened to be Rosh Hashana and the rabbi was brought to services by his disciples. At the peak of the services the rabbi asked for a moment. He spoke this poem and later died. From that day forth we repeat the poem every year on Rosh Hashana.
Which is a more compelling story? The one that gives probable historical background or the one with the improbable gruesome tale?
Imagine yourself in great pain as the holiest days come, as the quiet before your death nears — what do you say to G-d? you are now standing at the cliff.
This day (my last day) is “awesome and frightening.” On this day, I am not sure I would describe G-d as King. He is not quite as human to me as to the poet. Perhaps the king description is the feeling of being so small in this universe and not having all the answers and the hope that something more powerful is present.
So as the Book of Life is opened and the righteous and wicked are noted, I will be given until Yom Kippur for judgement on my life. (I am assuming that I am neither righteous or wicked.)
Then we hear the shofar. That is our call to pay attention because it is not until the silence and quietude that follows do we encounter G-d. The poem goes on to tell us that this is so much so that the angels tremble at this moment knowing that G-d is there and they will be judged.
After the shofar is sounded, this makes me think that I will close my eyes and listen for the “still, thin sound.” Please join me and may you be in the category of the righteous upon judgement.
Here are the references that gave me food for thought: