Untetaneh Tokef 5781: Meditation for Broken Souls in a Broken World

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A founding principal of the spiritual progressive movement is that effective activism for genuine social change requires a strong foundation of psychological balance and spiritual well-being. Implicit in this assertion is that the individual as change agent and as human being, the collective as society and its institutions, and, by extension, the natural environment are interconnected and profoundly affected by one another. 

Members of the Jewish community frequently pride themselves on being driven by adherence to concrete standards of action, rather than by either beliefs or introspection. As long as religious Jews, whether traditional or progressive, adhere to a specific behavioral discipline (whether grounded in classical presentations of halacha or in one or another contemporary blueprint for social responsibility), they presumably are doing their part to create a better world based upon the will of God. To the extent that traditional Jewish communities have promoted strong family and community connections and established institutions for meeting communal needs, or progressive Jews have played an influential role in enacting legislation, founding institutions, or offering professional services for the greater good, this model has succeeded. However, there are countless examples of social policies and institutions becoming corrupt or creating unanticipated side effects as an outcome of individual moral failures, corruption, hunger for power or recognition, or strict adherence to policies, ideologies, or religious precepts while failing to honor the intended attitudes and values underlying them. Less corrosive yet equally counterproductive is the tendency for well-intentioned individuals to burn out or become physically or psychologically debilitated as a result of pursuing lofty goals while failing to take responsibility for the well-being of their own bodies and souls.

Ideally Jewish practices address these issues by grounding ethical behavior and social action with deep nourishment of body and soul. The rituals observed during the yamim nora’im (Days of Awe) were carefully crafted to enable all members of the Jewish community to confront and purge the scars in their own souls that were created when their behavior harmed those around them. The individual process of introspection then promotes balance in the community as a whole as its members seek forgiveness from one another. Finally, the reflections and transformative rituals are consciously directed towards work for the greater good in the coming year.

It is important to recognize these interconnected layers when approaching a complex piece of liturgy such as Unetaneh Tokef. While the exquisite Hebrew poetry in this prayer focuses primarily on introspection around individual shortcomings and their consequences, the process it presents embraces the celestial along with the earthbound, the solution in social action along with the reflection in the individual, and the pathos of self-examination along with an embrace of the divine.

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The intention here is not to analyze Unetaneh Tokef per se, but rather to propose how it can be understood and applied in 2020. At a time when global events and phenomena are bombarding our psyches in ways that make the individual psychospiritual pathology inseparable from the consequences of imbalances in the macrocosm and healing of the soul is inextricably linked with healing the brokenness of society and the crises of the planet, the prayer needs to be approached in an holistic and integrative way.

The paradigm proposed here as congruent with the text is that of Tibetan Buddhist visualization and mindfulness practice. In this model, the practitioner conjures the image of a divine being, then empowers this being to offer insight, heal her soul, and perform a penetrating inventory of every misdeed she committed in the past year.

UNETANEH TOKEF KEDUSHAT HAYOM

Now let us proclaim the holiness of this today

For it is awesome and solemn

For on it your sovereignty is established

And your seat is set in place in kindness (b’chesed)

And you sit upon it in truth (be’emet).

The truth that only you have what it takes to judge and rebuke us.

We are not cowering for mercy to a cruel, vengeful God, rather we stand humbly before one acting out of kindness. And the goal of this enterprise is not punishment or making us feel guilty. God sees us exactly as we are, gazing deep inside us with soft, compassionate eyes, and inviting us to do the same. 

Anyone who practices mindfulness meditation knows that we are not hardwired to reflect in this way; the closest we come to it is the way our psyches like to beat us up by reliving embarrassing moments:  Why did I have to spill my coffee at that job interview? Why did I call my boss’s husband by the wrong name? Why did I throw that explosive tantrum when my life partner said something innocuous that I misinterpreted? This is a subterfuge, perhaps a remnant of how our prehistoric ancestors were wired to spring into self-defense for their survival. Now we create enormous mental anguish for ourselves as protection against the discomfort of reliving uncomfortable moments. The irony is that what we put ourselves through this way is more painful and debilitating than what we are trying to avoid. 

Liberation from this low-grade self-torture requires no-nonsense authentic truth (emet). But just as we are incapable of tickling ourselves, so the mindset that created the problem is not the mindset that can resolve it. We need to look beyond the ordinary for help, to that which is “awesome and solemn,” namely this day on which we surrender egoistic control to the truth that only God has “what it takes to judge and rebuke us.”

We therefore project a divine image before our mind’s eye, and empower this image to conduct a comprehensive investigation of our soul:

It is you who shall write,

you who shall seal what is written,

you who shall read,

and you who shall number all souls.

You alone can remember what we have forgotten; 

it is you who shall open the Book of Remembrance,

which bears the imprint that our deeds and our lives have inscribed.

At this point the prayer shifts from the individual level to the cosmic:

And when the great shofar is sounded,

a small quiet voice can be heard,

and the heavenly beings are thrown into fright,

and, seized by a terrible dread, they declare:

“Behold, the Day of Judgment has arrived!”

This year the Day of Judgment comes in reaction to centuries of environmental destruction, polluting the celestial abodes of angels and the hosts of heavens with industrial filth and toxic chemicals belching out of ugly smoke stacks. For a half-century we’ve knowingly proliferated greenhouse gases that wreak havoc with the climate of the planet. At a certain moment enough is enough. An enraged blast shook the heavens, pestilence was released on the earth, fires destroyed huge swatches of magnificent primeval forest, and all shook in terror. And as the earth struggles to restore balance, the still small voice of our inner knowing conveys to us the revelations from our visualization of the divine.

From another perspective, the Great Shofar cries out for justice, shrieking in horror at the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, galvanizing us to put an end to undemocratic regimes, penetrating the veil that conceals the connective tissue linking germ-based pandemics, climate havoc, minority injustice, grinding poverty, and the spiritual emptiness of contemporary life. The still small voice reminds us that we can make the necessary changes on a global level effectively and without unanticipated negative consequences only if the work begins within the depths of our own souls.

However we look at it, this passage reminds us that we cannot ignore the dangers surrounding us, that we can heal ourselves only if we address the problems of society and the environment, and conversely we can address these only if we look deeply within our souls, reliving and releasing what we discover.

Reflecting on our actions, we become aware of the chain of cause and effect, of how deeds in the past shape consequences in the future. The goal here is not to petrify us in terror because we are afraid to do anything that might ultimately lead to our death; rather it is to build awareness of possible outcomes so that we can calmly and rationally make wise choices on how to live our lives. And so we pray:

B’ROSH HASHANAH YIKATEVUN, U’V’YOM TZOM KIPPUR YECHATEMUN

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Day of the Fast of Atonement it is sealed:

Who will live, and who will die,

who dies by fire, and who by water,

who by the sword, and who by the beast,

who by hunger, and who by thirst,

who by an earthquake, and who by a plague,

who shall be strangled, and who shall be stoned,

who dwells in peace, and who is uprooted,

who shall live safely, and who shall be harmed,

whose life is tranquil, and whose is tormented!

The Buddhist teaching on karma says that negative actions lead to negative consequences; but at the same time, no outcome is inevitable because subsequent positive actions can alter what happens.

The prayer conveys a similar message:  

U’TESHUVAH U’TEFILLAH U’TZEDAKAH MA’AVIRIN ET ROAH HA’GEZERAH

Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah can lighten the severity of the decree.

This provides guidance for what to do to avoid the full extent of the dire consequences of past actions.

Teshuvah is the turning around of our lives through deep introspection and a sincere effort to pull our wheels out from the mud of unproductive patterns

Tefillah is prayer to evoke the divine power and mercy that supports us in doing what we are unable to do without divine help

Tzedakah is meeting our obligation to share responsibility for the needs and well-being of our fellow sentient being.

Each of these practices has the power to make the decree less severe in various ways. 

* Instead of facing death in the coming year, life can be prolonged for decades more.

* Even if one were decreed to die by fire, water, the sword, or beasts, this does not need a reason to panic. One could die at a ripe old age in various ways:

By fire – lying comfortably and peacefully next to the fireplace;

By water – relaxing and looking out over a beautiful lakeside panorama;

By the sword – under anesthetic in surgery that one entered with awareness and no regrets

By beasts – surrounded by one’s own beloved dogs.

* “Death” need not refer to what happens when our bodies fully give out. Every moment of transition is a death. Moving to a new place, leaving a job or a marriage, or breaking a self-destructive habit all involve a sort of death. So if, for example, a person with chronic alcohol use disorder swears off of alcoholic beverages for life, then the alcoholic person would be dead and the non-alcoholic person would be born. If one were to mark this death ritually by immersing in the mikvah, then the decree of death by water would still be carried out, but its severity would be significantly lightened.

From this reading, Unetaneh Tokef provides inspiration to reflect on our lives and redirect our energies more productively. It also leaves us with the resources to continue our self-reflection independently, using a similar approach to that employed in Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice. At the end of this sort of visualization, the meditator allows the image to gradually become smaller and less well defined until it ultimately dissipates within the center of her heart. In essence, the meditator has incorporated the qualities of the divine image into herself. This is what happens at the end of Unetaneh Tokef:

SHIMCHA NA’EH L’CHA

V’ATAH NA’EH LISHMECHA

USH’MENU KARATA BISHMECHA

Your name is worthy of yourself

While you are worthy of your name

Furthermore, you have called our name using your name

After extended verses about how we are like sheep before the shepherd, a fading flower, or dust blown by the wind, while God and God’s name are great beyond comprehension, we learn at the very end of the prayer that we little sheep actually carry within us the name of the infinitely great God. Like the Tibetans, we have allowed this Divine image to interpenetrate our beings and dwell in our hearts.

Thus even after the gates have closed at the end of Yom Kippur and we go back to our ordinary life of doing the laundry shopping for cabbage, we can invoke the wisdom from within ourselves to reflect on our deeds and refine our neshamot.

This year, the challenges raised by COVID-19 provide opportunities to reflect on our lives, draw out the best in ourselves, and create a better world. Since March we cooperated globally for a common goal, donning unsightly, uncomfortable masks to protect not ourselves, but those around us. We have helped neighbors too vulnerable to shop for food. We have connected electronically to offer support and inspiration, rekindle relationships, work for global change, and touch hearts even as we could see only one another’s heads and shoulders. If we continue to let go of fear and open our hearts, we will emerge from the pandemic with the strength and confidence to build the world of our dreams.

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