A contemporary explanation to the High Holiday’s most moving prayer.
The chazzan begins to hum the familiar tune of Unesanu Tokef, an ancient prayer said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Familiar, not because I’ve heard its melody in my synagogue for the last few decades, but it is a part of me as I see its consequences every waking day of my life.
As the Associate Director of Chai Lifelines Crisis Intervention and Bereavement Department, the mental health responder for Hatzaloh in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, as well as the consultant for crisis and bereavement for Achiezer, ATIME and Ohr Naava, I am in some way involved in every type of crisis, trauma and tragedy that affects the Jewish Community locally, nationally and internationally.
My prayerbook’s pages turn to this epic liturgy and the words jump off.
Unesanu Tokef. Let us begin to relate the power of the day’s holiness, to the power of the prayer’s meaning…but do we really? Can we, with all our distractions of an eye on the clock till we can survive our fast, really connect with the concept that it’s a “day filled with awe and fright?“
The images continue: “Like a shepherd tending His flock….” I cannot erase the visions of flocks of pure white, not lambs, but ivory souls of children whose stories I embraced, nurtured and mourned over the past 12 years. I close my tear-filled eyes and see how each part of Unesanu Tokef is written. I see a child lost, a family forever changed. The powerful meaning of the words runs stings my soul.
The salve to that pain is action. Perhaps through sharing some of my experiences, albeit painful to hear, you can find new meaning in the words and together we can pray, scream, beseech our Father of Mercy to put an end to all the tragedies of the Jewish nation.
Who will live and who will be passed over for life
It is hard to imagine that many mothers chanted this very prayer just one year ago, never fathoming that the lives of their children hung in the balance on that Rosh Hashanah day. “On Rosh Hashanah the year’s decree is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die…”
These are not just words to countless families who struggle now to live with the new reality of an altered family structure. They lost a piece of their collective heart.
Who in the right time, and who prematurely
Can one conceive of a son dying at three years old? How can that be the right time? Barely in playgroup, there is his bar mitzvah, college, his wedding scheduled for the future! After all, at his bris we prayed for him to merit to be brought to his chuppah. He needs more time! Potential good deeds, no longer viable.
What of those women who never made the baby shower or celebratory bris at the right “time” as their journey to physical motherhood ended before birth? The death of a child is never ‘the right time’ for a grieving parent, however our faith that God only knows the right time for each sustains us.
Who by water
I shudder as visions of playful and joyous children swimming and boating on hot summer days turn to tragedy. I only meet these families immediately after the drowning. I walk into a home and see frames filled with pictures of toothless grins, group shots at family barbecues or moments preserved from visiting day.
Who by fire
My mind wanders with the chazzan’s next words as I sigh and remember several members of one family engulfed from a vicious fire.
Who by the sword
Did we not just lose three of our holy nation’s precious boys this year? Deaths from violence, brutal murder and unprovoked evil are unfathomable to our peaceful tribe of Israel. I smell the stench of its consequences too often, whether I am intimately involved with the bereaved family, or apprised of the countless incidents of trauma caused by terror attacks in Israel, France or America.
Who by a wild animal
A young child attacked by wildlife in the otherwise idyllic countryside.
Who by hunger, who by thirst
It’s mind boggling to consider starvation in our neighborhoods. But in the 21st century, in the suburbs, a cornucopia of food can never revive those deteriorating from an eating disorder. Right at this moment in shul my 25-hour fast begs thirst quenching life of water, yet my body’s needs are dulled by the pain of remembering the vision of a father watching a living skeleton, his preteen daughter, as she fades away before his eyes. And what of those children who died from food-related deaths; choking, allergic reactions or food borne contamination?
Who by storm
Natural disaster is a phenomenon we hear too often in the news. It became much more close to home during hurricane Sandy. During my work with victims of Superstorm Sandy I saw the demise of stability, the casualties and loss expressing itself in a myriad of ways.
Who by plague
For a mother to watch her child suffer and perish slowly as a result of cancer or other terminal illnesses is debilitating. It rips your heart apart. Prior to my trauma work I was one of the directors of Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, Chai Lifeline’s camps for children with cancer and other long term illnesses. There I stared disease in the eye. I saw it sadly triumph and engulf precious children’s bodies and ultimately take their lives. As I continue seeing the scourge of disease test families through my current work, it never gets easier.
Who by strangulation
Imagine the suffocation of the victim who succumbs to their battle with cystic fibrosis and lungs that were too sick to sustain them, or the child smothered by the sand tunnel he innocently was building on the beach.
Who by stoning
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me. If only. Victims of abuse — physical, sexual or emotional — die literal deaths and figurative deaths. Stoning also connotes images of vehicles hitting children innocently walking, biking and skateboarding.
Who will rest? Who will wander? Who will have serenity? Who will be distraught?
Some mothers awake in the morning to find their child has not and will not ever wake up again. Restful, without apparent suffering, but torturous and unexpected. Some are forced to watch their child linger in a death-like coma for weeks, months even years, and never expected to be revived.
Who will be tranquil? Who will be torn?
Which deaths will be sudden, shocking, traumatic, jarring and which expected, prolonged, anticipated yet dreaded?
Which families will suffer the private consequences of emotional disease? A child who feels that taking his own life is his only healing.
Who will be impovershed? Who will be wealthy? Who will be brought down? Who will rise up?
Yes even today in our own communities, there are families who live in such extreme poverty that their very existence is death-like and may even lead to actual death. The degradation that the children feel as a result is enough to kill them.
Reciting this prayer, my eyes have been closed and full of tears, seeing the visions of these lost children and so many others. I open my eyes now and see my children, the children of my neighbors and friends and I am filled with an overwhelming sense of humility, gratitude, and strength. I turn my eyes upwards and I thank God and plead for a good year, a year of comfort, strength, health, salvation and joy.