Rosh Hashana- Our False Sense of Security
There is a custom among Ashkenazim (and perhaps among some Sepharadim, as well, though our community does not have such a custom) to recite during the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah a special prayer called U’netaneh Tokef. Many regard this prayer as the highlight of the Rosh Hashanah service, the most emotional and gut-wrenching moments of prayer.
This prayer lays out in very clear and explicit terms what precisely is happening on this day of Rosh Hashanah:
“On Rosh Hashanah it will be written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it will sealed – how many will pass [from the world], and how many will be created; who will live, and who will die; who is at his end, and who is not at his end; who by water, and who by fire; who by the sword, and who by wild beasts; who by hunger, and who by thirst; who by earthquake, and who by plague; who by strangulation, and who by stoning; who will stay in place, and who will be exiled; who will live peacefully, and who will endure tribulations; who will have tranquility, and who will suffer; who will become poor, and who will become rich; who will be lowered, and who will rise.”
Nobody with a pulse can hear these words and not be moved by this clear and frightening description of the judgment that takes place on Rosh Hashanah.
To properly grasp the power of this prayer, however, we must be aware of its background. As recorded by the Or Zarua (Rabbi Yishak of Vienna, 13th century), this prayer was composed by a Sadik in Germany named Rabbi Amnon of Mayence. He was a respected, high-ranking advisor to the local bishop, and his stature aroused the envy of other church officials. These officials approached the bishop and urged him to pressure Rabbi Amnon to covert to Christianity. After all, they noted, it would be only appropriate for a person of such rank to be a member of the Christian faith.
And so, the bishop summoned Rabbi Amnon and asked him if he would convert.
“Convert?” Rabbi Amnon said. “Why do I need to do that? I have been a loyal and faithful advisor to you all these years as a Jew. I don’t need to become a Christian.”
But the bishop persisted, and eventually, Rabbi Amnon, under duress, said, “Look, give me three days to think about it.”
As soon as he left the bishop, Rabbi Amnon fell into depression. He could not believe that he had uttered those words – that he would consider abandoning his faith.
Three days later, the bishop summoned Rabbi Amnon and asked what he decided.
“I decided,” Rabbi Amnon said, “that you should cut off my tongue, which spoke of the possibility of my rejecting my faith!”
The bishop was incensed. He decreed that right there and then Rabbi Amnon’s arms and legs should be amputated.
That Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought by stretcher to the synagogue, and just before Kedusha during the Musaf prayer, he requested permission to recite a prayer. It was then that U’netaneh Tokef was recited for the first time. Rabbi Amnon loudly chanted this prayer which he composed, and as soon as he finished, his soul departed. He later appeared in a dream to one of the leading Rabbis in Germany at that time, Rabbi Kalonymus, and informed him that U’netaneh Tokef is regarded as a very sacred prayer in the heavens, and should be instituted as part of the Rosh Hashanah service. This prayer thus became an integral part of the Rosh Hashanah prayer service in Ashkenazic congregations, and remains so to this very day.
Nobody understood this message of “who will live and who will die” better than Rabbi Amnon. Just a week earlier, he was a wealthy, prominent man, and suddenly he was tortured to death. He was able to compose this prayer because he experienced firsthand the fragile nature of life, just how quickly fortunes can be reversed.
We all make certain assumptions about our lives. We assume that just as until now we and our families have generally been healthy, this good health will continue during the coming year. We assume that because we’ve enjoyed safety and security in our neighborhoods, we have no reason for fear. We assume that because we’ve had a steady job or a successful business for many years now, there is no reason to worry about supporting our families. The story of Rabbi Amnon, and the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, show us that these assumptions are incorrect, that we live with a false sense of security. On Rosh Hashanah, God determines whether our current success and good health will endure. We cannot assume that our situation the previous year or years will necessarily continue.
As frightening as this thought is, the U’netaneh Tokef prayer ends on an encouraging note: “But repentance, prayer and charity eliminate the harsh judgment.” Although we have no guarantees, we do have power over the outcome. Through “Teshuba, Tefila, U’sedaka” – repenting from our wrongdoing, pleading to God for mercy, and giving charity – we have the ability to avoid harsh decrees and see our current situation of health and security continue into and through the coming year, Amen.