At Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland last week, Rabbi Bradd Boxman told the congregation there was an elephant in the room. The elephant was a prayer, or a piyyut, a liturgical poem, that has been recited during the Jewish New Year for centuries.
The prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef, is about who will live and who will die in the coming year, and how. It involves asking to be inscribed in the book of life, to remain among the living.
Rabbi Boxman told me even in a good year, Unetaneh Tokef is "a hard prayer to hear."
But this year -- this year in Parkland? How do you even begin to grapple with a prayer like this?
That's the question he asked and attemped to answer in his sermon on Rosh Hoshanna. Unetaneh Tokef will be chanted again Wednesday during Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, which closes out the 10-day period of the Jewish New Year.
Here's an excerpt from our conversation.
WLRN: What is the Unetaneh Tokef? What does it say?
Boxman: The concept is that on Rosh Hoshanna, the book of our life is opened by God. And God looks in it and sees what we've done in the past year ... whether we'll be worthy of being re-written in the book of life for the coming year. It's the idea that we have ten days to try to set the record straight, between Rosh Hoshanna and Yom Kippur, when whatever our destiny for the new year will be sealed.
I don't take it literally, but the metaphor is that it's a time for great introspection and reevaluation of your life, your moral and ethical deeds as a human being and as a Jew, to try to figure out how you're going to make it right in the coming year. And Yom Kippur comes and your fate is sealed, so to speak.
One of its most famous lines is: who shall live and who shall die, who shall see ripe age and who shall not [see photo above]. And then it goes into how you might die: who by fire, who by earthquake, who by strangling, who by stoning. In any year, even a good year, it's a hard prayer to hear. Even if you don't take it literally, as I don't think most people necessarily take it literally, it's still a fact of life. No one knows what tomorrow will bring, and whether you will be in that synagogue a year from now. So it deals with the vulnerability of life and living.
As I was thinking about the Unetaneh Tokef this year, I was thinking about the incredible weight that it must have for you in Parkland and for your congregation. How did you handle that?
Four of the students that were killed were connected to my congregation and two of them were members. I ended up doing two of the funerals for the children, for the students. So the pain personally is tremendous, the burden of the community and all of us trying to struggle every day. So part of me was -- ignore it, because it's just too prevalent, and maybe the one place to come on the high holidays would be to kind of, you know -- let this be a shelter from all of that.
But then I knew I'd have to deal with this prayer. I can't take it out, it's been in the liturgy for a thousand years almost. And when you read that prayer, how can you not think, as I wrote in my sermon -- and who by AR 15 and who by a semi-automatic rifle? Because it was real and it had to be dealt with. And for that I had to really look inside myself and our tradition, and try to give folks an opportunity to squarely deal with this question of: Where was God?
If God is the one who writes the book and decides who's going to be in it and who's going to not, how are those families that are in the synagogue that day going to hear that prayer?
And I think this is a place where people start to lose faith in religion. ... You sent me a copy of your sermon from Rosh Hoshanna morning about the Unetaneh Tokef. You wrote: "I choose to reject this Biblical notion of God is all good, powerful and knowing." When people come to you and they say, "Rabbi, how do you continue to have faith in religion in the face of something like this?" Is that your answer?
So every person needs to find their own answer, and I say that in the sermon as well. I said if I knew God I'd be God. And I say that each one of us has to come up with our own understanding. If for some reason and somehow it brings one comfort that you can hold that notion that God is in control and ... God knows best and you can accept that -- God bless you, and I would never try to dissuade somebody from that kind of faith.
I think for many people that's hard for them to swallow. And I can't look into a parent who lost a child and say, "Well, God has a plan, and you may not know the plan, but it's all for good." I can't. For me that would be -- I'd have to pray to a God who is cruel. So for me, I say to them God is not in the tragedy, God does not cause the tragedy, God does not even prevent the tragedy. God is the response to the tragedy. A la Rabbi Kushner, who wrote the book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," I believe that we find God in the response to bad things.
When people come together in love and empathy, when we've come together to try to prevent similar such tragedies to save even one life, when we are able to use our brains to figure out how to make things better -- to me that is the expression of God, not the God who would be the one who cause such horrific events.
Now, I do want to say, I ended the sermon by saying that we have to find a way through the valley of the shadow. And when the prayer, the twenty-third psalm, says you walk through the valley of the shadow -- we don't get stuck there. You have to find the way to move forward.
At the conclusion of Rabbi Boxman's sermon about the Unetaneh Tokef, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sang "Shine," a song of hope, defiance and survival, written by two MSD students within days of the tragedy. Boxman says the entire congregation sang along. You can find the story of that song here.
And the Unetaneh Tokef was the inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song, "Who By Fire."