Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? — A Yom Kippur Reflection



This past week marked the end of what we Jews call the Days of Awe, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day in the Jewish Calendar. Susie, my beloved partner, and I attended services

The Shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

at the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, where we have been members for many years.

This year, our friend and Rabbi Margaret Holub asked me to do a teaching on a prayer that we say at Yom Kippur, called the Unataneh Tokef. The prayer’s most famous lines, at least to Jews, are: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die . . .”

The Days for Awe are so named because it is during the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that Jews are called upon to examine their lives, their relationships with people, and their relationship with God. They are called to turn, through these examinations, towards God.

Below is the text of the talk I gave on Yom Kippur. I’ve decided that images will distract from the text. I promise to return to them next post.

Thoughts on Unataneh Tokef

Our High Holiday mohzor (prayer book) is filled with reminders — as if we needed to be reminded — that life is cyclical. As Emmy Lou Harris sings, we are all born to live; we are all bound to die.

Some of these reminders are relatively gentle. That cannot, however, be said of the best known part of Unataneh Tokef, a prayer that many of us know at least a part of by heart. That part is:  “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who will live and who will die . . . .”

After a long litany of the many ways we might die, we are told that, while we cannot change the decree, tshuvah (turning), tefillah (study) and tzedakah (charity) will make our fate easier.

If tshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah could reverse the decree, I suspect the world would already be filled with many more devout and very old Jews.

I think it’s odd that this prayer is a central part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, because by the time it rolls around, it’s time for the ledger to be sealed and may be too late to do anything about it. At the same time, I don’t find any indication in the mohzor that what is written on Rosh Hashanah ever changes by the time Yom Kippur arrives. Nonetheless, like others more steeped in our tradition than I am, I have been struggling to understand what this prayer means, how to take it in.

I wonder if anyone still believes that God actually has a ledger book in which all our names appear, and that God makes an entry each year for each of us. But even if we don’t believe this, this prayer captures our attention and imagination, prompting us to wonder and pray that we end up on the living side of the ledger on Yom Kippur.

Because of this hope, it is during these days of awe that we ask ourselves questions about how we live our lives, ask whether our lives have purpose and meaning. Yom Kippur drives us to examine our lives, not because we’re necessarily going to die in the next year, but because doing so may result in tshuvah — turning towards God. Since we can’t know (not even I know despite my illness) whether we are written and sealed for another year, we strive to turn towards God so that, whenever our time comes, we have done our best to lead meaningful lives.

In a perfect reflection of Judaism, I think that what’s important in the Days of Awe are the questions we ask ourselves, not necessarily the answers to those questions. Because questions prod us to examine our selves and our lives deeply. The questions aren’t just for the Days of Awe; they are for everyday.

It’s not about getting to heaven, especially if you don’t believe there is one. It’s about examining ourselves to be sure we are living our lives to the fullest, with purpose and meaning. I think this is part of what Margaret was talking about in her drosh on Erev Rosh Hashanah (the evening service of Rosh Hashanah). While being inscribed in the book of life is a thing to pray for, it’s how we live the lives we are given  — however short or long — that indicates how we incorporate tshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

The singer song writer Keven Welch, who I doubt is Jewish, has lyrics that go like this: There’ll be two dates on your tombstone. And all your friends will read ’em. But all that’s gonna matter is that little dash between ’em.

The poet Mary Oliver, in a poem called The Summer Day, expresses it a little differently:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life.

The point of personal, self-reflective questions is to focus us on how we live now and how we need to change. If we do this, it does not matter a lot whether we’re not inscribed this year or next or ten years from now. Because we all die. The question is: are the lives we’re leading ones of connection, contemplation and good deeds?

The poet Rilke offers this: Have patience with everything that is unresolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for answers which couldn’t be given to you now, because you wouldn’t be able to live them. In poetic terms,

And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps, then, someday far in the future,

You will gradually, even without noticing it,

Live your way into the answer.

Rilke also offers this poem, which I think speaks to how we live our lives in relationship to God.


God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

then walks with us silently out of the night.


These are words we dimly hear:


You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.


Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.


Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.  No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.


Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness

Give me your hand.

In this day and age, I think Unataneh Tokef’s  true significance is not whether God in fact sits in judgment of each of us, but whether we believe that, in some meaningful way, our lives depend on our power to change, to take God’s hand, to engage in tshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. These things make it easier to bear what God may decree. I think they do so by helping us to live lives of learning, connection and good deeds that benefit the communities in which we live. That brings us closer to God in all of God’s many manifestations.

Since we cannot know where our names appear in the book, maybe the purpose of acknowledging that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed is to remind us that, whenever and however we die, our obligation is to notice — ourselves, our relationships with others, the good we do in the world. We are finite, but we transcend death by the way we live our lives and connect with each other and with God. The good we do lives on through the lives we’ve touched.

Life, death, and birth are mysteries that are in God’s hands. We cannot control them. But we can control our attitude towards them. I don’t think my having ALS is a way that God is punishing me. We’re all going to die of something. My challenge is to live whatever life I have left in tshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. I think that is the challenge for all of us, even those of us who are perfectly healthy today.

As I explained to someone else with ALS who was asking why I call myself a “practicing Jew,” I see myself as constantly striving toward a meaningful life and, through that life, a relationship with God. It’s a practice. Some people may get it perfectly right, but I think most of us — myself included — keep working to achieve tshuvah. I think that is the message of Unataneh Tokef.

© Barbara A. Brenner 2012

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7 Responses to Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? — A Yom Kippur Reflection

  1. Harriet Wolpoff says:

    Inspiring. Thank you Barbara.

  2. Linda Koteen says:

    Thank you Barbara, The space that always takes my breath away and causes a chill in the air for me. This was a helpful reflection.

  3. Natalie says:

    Barbara, thank. You for sharing that. I am so moved. Makes me want to be a practicing Jew!

  4. Karen Stevenson says:

    I found your teaching profoundly moving, Barb. You show us the way to live meaningfully. Thank you.

  5. penny rosenwasser says:

    thanks BB! xxx

  6. Thank you, I love your words. As a fellow traveler I am inspired. Last week I attended my first New Zealand temple, in Wellington, for Rosh Hashanah and I loved it, albeit the challenge of sitting on a wooden seat for three hours 🙂 it is a Progressive Groups, Temple Sinnai and as a non jew it spoke to me personally. One of my favorite books is The Spirituality of Imperfection, based on the 12 & 12 and ancient Jewish wisdom. I love the ancients 🙂

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