A few words on one of the most inspiring prayers of the High Holidays. (Reading this, now that I'm done, it's quite a bit more than "a few".)
Unsaneh Tokef is two paragraphs added right before Kedushah in the Chazan's repetition of the Amidah of Mussaf on these days. Technically, it is not part of the Amidah, and in some communities -- for example, the personal synagogue of R. Chaim Brisker -- it was not said on Rosh Hashanah on a weekday, as it would be an interruption in the middle of shofar blowing. (The Amidah itself is an inherent part of the same mitzvah as shofar blowing, a very interesting, and long, topic.) It is part of Ashkenazic tradition only.
UT was written in the 10th century by one of the leaders of the Chassidei Ashkenaz (a German movement that combined a focus on ethics with Kabbalistic teachings), R. Amnon of Mainz.
R. Amnon had a working relationship with the local bishop, in his capacity as spokesman for the community. This grew to a friendship of sorts. One time, the bishop asked R. Amnon if he'd consider converting to Christianity. This question, although possibly said half-jokingly, had no safe answer. To stall for time, R. Amnon asked for three days in which to consider.
As soon as he got home, regret set in. How could he possibly let someone else think he'd even consider leaving Judaism? He spent the three days in repentance, and when he didn't show up for his appointment, the bishop sent warrior-monks to get R. Amnon.
The bishop repeated his question. R. Amnon replied, "May my tongue be cut out for even suggesting I'd think about it." The bishop said that it was not his tongue that sinned, but his feet, for not coming. He ordered them chopped off.
Joint by joint they hacked off R. Amnon's toes, legs and feet. Each time, they asked him to convert, and they'd stop. He refused. Then, they did the same to his arms.
The bishop had R. Amnon returned, with his limbs, in a wheelbarrow. Clearly the Rabbi's system was in shock. He had not long to live. He held on, however, as many sick people do, to see the next holiday, Rosh Hashanah.
Right before Kedushah for Mussaf, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rav Amnon asked that the Aron be opened so that he may sanctify G-d's name in the synagogue, as he already had in the church. The words he said were this prayer, Unsaneh Tokef.
Having accomplished his mission, R. Amnon's fight to stay alive weakened, and not long after he died.
According to the book Or Zarua, a few nights later R. Amnon appeared in a dream to another of the Chassidei Ashkinaz, the Kabbalist R. Klonimus b. Meshullem. He taught R. Klonimus the words of the prayer and asked that the community include it in the High Holiday prayers.
The prayer opens: Unsaneh tokef kidushas hayom -- let us convey the sanctity of the day, for it is awe-inspiring and frightening. And on it we will carry Your Kingship.
The word is "tinasei" we will carry. It is for us to declare Him king. As David wrote: "ki Lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim" For G-d has the kingship, but he is a dictator over the nations. Until the day we describe in Aleinu "and they will all accept the yoke of your kingship".
A little later it describes "a great shofar will be blown, and a quiet, thin sound will be heard". "Quiet, thin sound" is a reference to a lesson Hashem teaches Elijah in Kings I. First the prophet is buffeted by a powerful wind, and G-d says, "I Am not in the wind", then he hears a loud crash, "I Am not in the crash", then a fire, and G-d says that He is neither there. Then "a small thin voice". G-d's voice in this world is within us, if we would only listen.
The great shofar is blown -- today is judgment day! And finally, we can hear the voice of G-d calling within us. This sets the angels atremble. They have no free will, no consciousness nor conscience, they are automata, pushed and pulled like leaves in the spiritual wind.
R. Eliyahu Shaviv, of Yeshiva Gush Etzion, creates a fascinating mental image. Rosh Hashanah is on Rosh Chodesh, the day of the new moon. It was up to Sanhedrin to accept two witnesses who saw the new moon, and then they sanctify the month.
We can not picture the heavens, but the following uses the traditional imagery. Conveying the events on an emotional level, even if we can't understand what really goes on in the heavens.
G-d "sits" on his throne, which, UT tells us, represents His Kindness. A king can be kind, a dictator must rule by force. All the tziva'os hashamyim, the legion of angels of the heavens, stand ready to declare G-d's kingship over the universe(s). Malkiel (the angel whose name means G-d is my king) stands ready with "crown" and "scepter".
And they stand there, and wait. For what? For two pushete yidden, two simple Jews, to say "we have seen the new moon" so that Sanhedrin will declare the day the first of Tishrei.
Uvo sinasei malchusechah -- on this day we will carry Your Kingship. It is the task of the Jewish people alone. People, human beings with free will, loftier than angels because we have the potential for growth, to hear and head that small thin voice. It is out task to bring that message to the rest of humanity. If two Jews do not declare it so -- it is not coronation day!
This is the theme of Aleinu, which we say daily, and which is taken from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Mussaf.
Then, the prayer seems to shift theme. It goes from G-d's Kingship to that of justice. But that's the whole point of these days. The days upon which we accept G-d as King, as Melech, and not a Moshel, a Dictator, are the days of mercy -- because of our acceptance of his role in running the universe(s).
G-d counts us, lovingly, as individuals, the way a shepherd counts is flock as he lets them pass single file past his crook and through the gate.
On Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed, and on Yom Kippur we are sealed into the Book of Memories that reads itself, as R. Amnon describes it. And this Book of Memories has each deed in it, signed by the hand that did it. G-d doesn't judge by evidence, but weighs the actual facts. All is known with certitude.
Not just in the actuarial manner of a community -- how many will be born, and how many will die. Not just the major life events, the ones that people often think of as "fate": who will die in their destined time, and who wil die early, who in their sleep and who will (G-d forbid) die a violent death. But even exactly how they will die, how much money they will earn, who will get sick, who will get honor, who will be humbled. The Chassidic masters teach that even when you stub your toe, or don't find your money until you search your second pocket as opposed to getting it right away, G-d is trying to tell you something.
But in Judaism, nothing ends with philosophizing. We focus on halachah because the primary question should always be: what does this situation empower me to do?
Three things "pass through" the evil decree: Teshuvah, tephillah and tzedakah. Now, when you are in the throes of accepting G-d as a willing subject, use that chance for mercy, and change yourself, improve the things you've been weak in.
Teshuvah -- a return. The UK Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shlit"a, likens this to all the waves of immigrants to Israel. The Yemenites, the Morrocans, the Russians and the Ethiopians. They stepped off the plain to a land they never saw before, and suddenly "we are home". Teshuvah is return to a religious home. Even if you've never been there before.
These three things, teshuvah, prayer and charity (which, we should remember, Jews call tzedakah -- justice), parallel the three relationships that dominate our lives.
Teshuvah -- improve your self. Are you too quick-tempered? Haughty? How much Torah do you know? How much Torah do you feel?
Tephillah -- pray to G-d. Remind yourself that you have a Third Parent, Someone Who wants you to grow, be more than merely a sentient animal.
Tzeddakah -- How are you doing in your relationships to other people? Do you give charity? Do you speak charitably? Do you help a neighbor? Smile when you greet people? Say hello to the old man sitting on the porch that you pass on the way to the train station? Thank your parents or your spouse lately? Let your children know when they've done well?
It would behoove us, I when I write this monologue, you, as you read it, to choose one thing, something we can commit to and have a real chance of succeeding at, just one thing from each of these facets of our lives, to add to our current behavior.
May we all earn a g'mar chasimah tovah,
a completed and sealed judgment for all the best in '57,