Leading up to the Days of Awe – questions for a fragile time
Unetane Tokef is one of the most powerful piyutim of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service. The piyut describes the terrible roll-call of death that God prepares at the head of each new year.
Who will die this year? ask the angels listening to the Lord’s call. Who will die before their time? Who by fire and who by sword?
In Israel this piece of liturgy tends to speak to the hearts of the most secular as well as the religious. After burying eleven of its sons in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the secular Kibbutz Bet HaShita even commissioned a new tune to Unetane Tokef, so moved were they by its painful reminder of the fragility of life.
As we approach once again the Days of Awe, ready to sing Unetane Tokef at the start and end of these days of repentance, fragility would seem to be the theme of our preparations.
Several questions may well accompany our thoughts.
- Will a war break out with Iran before the end of the year? And if not, will this make a nuclear war more or less likely?
- Will the Gazan and Northern Front be calm, while Syria rages?
And less immediately existential but no less crucial:
- Will an election in Israel be called prior to the vote on a new budget, and will the budget manage to address the concerns raised by the Social Justice protests?
- Will the Tag of Light responses defeat the Price Taggers, who defile Christian and Muslim sites in protest at government action against settlements?
- Will the work place and the military be able to integrate the Haredi community without extracting too high a price for all involved?
- Will we find a just, decent, and practical way of addressing the growing African refugee crisis in Israel?
- Will the phenomenon of Israeli mainstream culture addressing Jewish sources be a passing trend, or emerge as a tremendous force for renewal?
Bet HaShita’s tune composed by Yair Rosenblum, with its mournfulness and its energy, offers us no answers, but perhaps provides reassurance for our souls. It may come as no surprise that synagogues throughout the country now sing the ancient words of Unetane Tokef to this new tune.
Shana Tova – Happy New Year!