The ultimate question
Who will live and who will die?
My kids are the first to tell me that God does not have a body. “But how can He write us in a book of life? God isn’t like a person, ema!” Indeed.
The image of an anthropomorphic God is rife, however, throughout the Mahzor, the High Holy Days prayer book. God sits in judgment, counts our deeds, and records them in a grand book that captures the narrative of our past year. And while the image is one that even our children may question, the metaphor is a daunting one.
Particularly poignant is the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we first see in the Rosh Hashana liturgy and then again on Yom Kippur. Allegedly written by the 11th-century sage Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, it begins, “on Rosh Hashana it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”
Next come the dreadful musings of the author: “Who will live and who will die? Who will rest and who will wander? Who by fire and who by water?”
The poem evokes a particular feeling of angst for synagogue-goers the world over, putting us in direct confrontation with our own mortality. And while we may find the poem theologically problematic — the tension between our free will and God’s providence — it remains a focal point of our High Holy Days experience.
In that moment, the curtain falls away and we are alone as we face ultimate meaning. Will we actually die this year? Will we become infirm or impoverished, or have our lives degraded in another way? Will we lose those we love?
Could we have imagined that one year ago, when we were last confronted with this prayer, that we or our loved ones would have encountered difficult trials? With the benefit of hindsight, would we have acted any differently, been more compassionate and loving?
Since moving to Israel this summer with my family, I feel like a confrontation with ultimate meaning is not limited to the High Holy Days — especially when you move with your husband and three kids during a war.
When I had made aliya 20 years earlier, I was single. I lived through the hope of peace with the Palestinians and the Oslo Accords, which too soon gave way to despair when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
There were other painful interruptions to an otherwise carefree life of a young woman in her 20s — the Second Intifada, bus bombings, death of friends. While it was dangerous living here, uncertainty was something we faced daily and learned how to cope with. Friendships were stronger and plans to go, to do, to experience and to love were a part of a daily calling to make meaning. The raw beauty of life was fully seized, in part because the fear of life’s end was all too palpable.
With a family, especially during the most recent bout with Hamas, we face ultimate meaning by realizing how little is in our control. While we build a secure framework for our children of schools, playgroups, and enrichment activities, ultimately the future is uncertain. No Israeli will tell you otherwise. I might think that as a parent I have a godlike ability to protect my children, but I know in my heart that I am like a giant in their eyes only.
The encounter with death makes our own lives so much more vivid. Ernest Becker knew this well when he wrote Denial of Death in 1973. We put up so many defenses in our day-to-day lives to feel safe and secure, to think it will all last forever, and we deny the fact that at the end of the day, we are all ultimately very fancy worm feed.
Becker wrote, “Man cuts out for himself a manageable world… he doesn’t bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does… he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out…the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him. He doesn’t have to have fears when his feet are solidly mired and his life mapped out in a ready-made maze.”
This is how so many of us behave during 11 months of the year. But in the month of Tishrei, as we prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have an opportunity to take away the artifice of our manageable and prescribed lives and face our mortality directly. Like with the Unetaneh Tokef poem, the answer to the question of “who will live and who will die,” as Rabbi Edward Feinstein notes, is “me.”
Having a death consciousness makes us healthier, more real, more daring. We stand up for what we believe in, we repair broken relationships, and we take risks — by caring about people and causes that need us.
Your life is happening right now. The metaphor of God counting our deeds in the book of life during the High Holy Days enables us to make our lives count.