on the unetane tokef

“on the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur they stand him [the High Priest] at the Eastern Gate [of the temple mount] and they lead before him oxen, rams, and sheep, that he should recognize [each of them] and be conversant in the service”

we learn this from Mishnah, Yoma 1:3. it was important that the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] be able to distinguish the ox to be offered as a continual fire offering for the public, and the 1 to be offered as a sin offering for himself. likewise the rams; 1 for the public, and 1 for himself and his house [family]. all 7 sheep were offered as continual fire offerings for the public and the Day; none were designated for the Kohen.  now, what’s missing from this? well, the 2 twin goats; 1 to be offered as a sin offering, the other to be driven off into the desert “for azazel”…the famous scapegoat.

the sheep were distinguished from the goats, which 2 identical animals were the special sin offering that marks uniquely the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

ok, but what does all this have to do with the unetane tokef, that confounding prayer about passing before G’d like sheep, and the book of life, and big time judgement, and  who dies this way and that…and then that inexplicable something about t’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedaka?

well, the crucial word: “ma’avirin”, used in the passage from Yoma as “lead before” the Kohen Gadol standing in the Eastern Gate,  is exactly the word and form used in the unetana tokef at the crucial point of pivot from judgment to what gets beyond judgement:

u’t’shuvah u’t’filah u’tz’daka ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah 

which is often conventionally translated as “and repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship of the decree pass“. oy.

of unetane tokef’s central statement, no less a light than R’ Lawrence Kushner suggests that “ma’avirin” here, the “passing over”, if you will, is a sort of religious coping mechanism. if we do these 3 things we will be able to get over grandma’s death (ch’v) better. oy. maybe, but that’s pretty weak tea from a prayer that the ashkenazic world inserts just before the kedusha in the amidah! the old “religion helps the weak get over grief, and fear, and loss” bit.

let’s go back to Yoma and the 7-days of preparation of the Kohen Gadol. 7 days…of course…7 sheep….of course…special number, right? well, there are 7 usages of the hebrew root ayin bet(vet) resh in the unetane tokef. 7 and 7 only. aside from the root shin mem for “name” , as in Your Holy Name, ayin bet resh is the most often repeated root in the piyyut, the poem (that we have made into prayer). so let’s look at the rhythm of usage of the significant 7 ayin bet resh usages in the unetane tokef and think of the work as a poem (that is what a piyyut is after all) and be minful of the connection to and the picture painted above in Mishnah Yoma, and learn. and because a piyyut is a religious poem, we will see how particular usage of ayin bet resh connects also to revelation in Tanach, for unetane tokef is rife with allusion to scripture:

1. verse 10, “for they will not be innocent when You judge them, and all who enter the world will pass before [ya’avrun] You like sheep“.–this use of ayin bet resh is straight out of Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2. it is the epitomy of Rosh Hashanah that all living things pass before haShem and are recognised/known/seen/remembered for what they are and for what they have done. to be written in the book is to be recognised individually for your righteousness, and to be written is to be written for the life of the world to come….but to be blotted out of the book is to be consigned to spiritual death…as in karet. please note, careful readers, that there is no blotting out mentioned in the unetane tokef! quite the opposite, in fact, “and You will remember everything that has been forgotten, and You will open the book of remembrance…and it will be read from: everyone’s signature is in it“. everyone’s identifier is in the great book of remembrances…all are remembered in the smallest detail. but all are written, no mention at all is made of blotting anyone, or any deed, out.

and the purpose of the passing of the sheep before the Kohen Gadol before Yom Kippur? to know/recognise and then on Yom Kippur to remember the distinguishing characteristics of each animal. all are to be brought close to haShem. all are moving from the more earthly aspect to the more holy….

2. verse 11, “as a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under [ya’avrun] his staff–this usage evokes several passages of scripture. first consider Ezekiel 34:2ff wherein the shepherds are castigated for thinking of themselves, eating only the fattest sheep, using only the thickest wool, and slaughtering only the best….but forsaking the frail, the ill, the broken…and the lost, which the poor shepherd did not search for! G’d, however, is the shepherd that remembers the frail, the ill, the broken and searches for the lost (34:16). woe betide them as is fat and sassy, the 1% perhaps, though, for they will be dealt with with justice only….pure gevurah. chesed for the rest of us….

the Kohen Gadol reviews the passing animals to be sure that he gets the order of the service, and the part of each individual in it, correct. the care is for proper integration of each individual into the service of atonement for all…and animals are to be seen as individuals as well…and not just as slabs of meat (the modern way, it seems so often).

but the usage all calls up Leviticus27:32ff wherein we learn that chosenness is randomized and not just a selection based on merit or fitness: “any tithe…of the flock, any that passes under [ya’avor] the staff, the 10th one shall be holy to haShem. he [the shepherd] shall not distinguish between good and bad and he [the shepherd] should not substitute for it“. all will not be innocent when they pass under, but even the not so hot may be chosen in the passing of every 10.  holiness is not only derived from good vs bad. and the Kohen Gadol looked at the tithed creatures, and had to recognised them each for its own identity.

(note: the romans also practiced a variation on this. they called it “decimation” in which 1 in every 10 villagers from a rebellious place would be put to the sword in front of all the other inhabitants….decimation does not mean utterly wiped out, as moderns seem to think….but rather meant a cruel selection with punishing random effects. it seems that many jews today misread unetane tokef as though it were a roman ode to slaughter. they forget their own revelational context and let the roman-descended secular west get in their way. please do not do this, chevrei!)

3. verse 12, “so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by [ta’avir]”  note carefully that all living beings is used and not all living humans only. now, does that change your view of how the word “judgement” must mean in this piyyut? does one judge the righteousness of a sheep? of a narwhal? of a spider? it must mean something a little different then…..evaluation without condemnation, perhaps. or simply, as suggested by everything we have looked at already, it is remembrance and recording and distinguishing…without a strong note of “judgement” in a punitive sense. it is close observational science, in which G’d sees all in keen focus and know the tendencies and practices and troubles and fondnesses and perversions, etc, of all. he records, if you will “particularities” in complete detail, and, perhaps, trends…..consider Jeremiah33:12-13 where we see this use of ayin bet resh: “….there will yet again be in this place [the Land of Israel]….a cote for shepherds who rest their flocks….in the cities of Judah, the sheep will again pass before [ta’avir] the hand of the one who counts them, says haShem“. the counting here is a sign of life and redemption, the sign of a shepherd who is making sure none are left behind. passing here is recognizing, like the Kohen Gadol, the characteristics of each. many farmers (not factory farmers) will probably tell you that they know the sounds and looks of every one of their critters…even if they have hundreds. some farmers even know their livestock by distinctive names. such a shepherd is that drawn in unetane tokef, for everyone’s signature is recorded.

in 3 quick versese we learn a great deal about ayin bet resh in the imagination of the writer of the piyyut: he is thinking of objective observation; of counting (being worthy of searching out and bringing into the fold even if broken and lost and undesirable) and being counted; of random chosenness independent of good and bad; of all life and of humans in particular; of public, collective redemption and individual redemption. the relationship between G’d and Creation herein is anything but simple. and the idea of “passing” is certainly not associated with death, but with life. indeed it is redemptive, so passing over/under/before suggests transforming, just as the animals that are passed before the Kohen Gadol are moving from an earthy position to a holy position. change is the watchword, not punishment. consider at this juncture, chevrei, how these meanings relate to t’shuvah, t’filah, u’tzedakah….

4. verse 15, “how many will pass on [ya’avorun] and how many will be created [yibarei’un]” note first the similarity of sound of the 2 hebrew words, the first being our root and the second being a different root, but being oh so similar. so the question for us is do we have opposition here? ie, pass on (death) vs creation (life)? here’s the rub, right? well, the next line is certainly contrasting life and death….or at least who “will be” [yih’yeh–think of the first Name of G’d that Moses comes to know in Exodus 3:14] and who will expire and leave the earthly for the purely spiritual.

who at their end and who not (we usually translate this as “predestined time” vs “not predestined time”, but i don’t know why……and if you do translate it that way, what exactly does predestined and not predestined mean if it is all recorded in a book before it happens anyway? probably not a good translation, methinks, so what other sort of transformation might be hinted at?).

who by fire [hmm…Deuteronomy 33 reads as “His right hand from amidst the fire gave the Torah to us” sounds lively enough for me] and who by water [hmm…what about Isaiah 55:1 “behold, all who are thirsty, come for water”, which the mystics read as equating Torah with water…sounds more lively than deadly to me]

look at the list and see which can only mean “who dies by/with” this or that. look carefully, and try reading the list as “who lives by/with” instead. this may be a case of both and not either…all set up by the ambiguity of the first verse of the sequence, where the ambiguity of ayin bet resh suggests passing as being the transformational movement and not a reified euphemism for death….in hebrew at least. english is astoundingly unflexible just when you need it to be other….

5 would be our big line with ma’avirin and t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah…but before we take it up, let’s take a look at the 2 uses of ayin bet resh that follow, and that add new definition and apposition to the meaning.

6. verse 29, “like a passing [oveir] shadow and like a vanishing cloud“. and this impermanence of our condition is contrasted at verse 31 with the “living and everlasting” state of G’d. of course we are created in the image [tselem] of G’d, and the word tselem shares the root of shadow [tsel], which always brings to mind that we are but the silhouette of G’d, lacking all the particular detail of the full image. but the reference here reflects a verse in Psalm 144 “man is like a breath, his days are as a shadow that passes [oveir]“. an image of impermanence, but more, for consider its mate the “vanishing” cloud. what is the most famous iteration of the cloud? certainly that in which dwells the Holy One at the top of Sinai. is that a symbol of impermanence or of intermediary between man and G’d? and think too to the cloud that led the People in the wilderness by day, which transformed into a fire at night (and think back to “who by fire and who by water”!). G’d’s Presence is always within the cloud of the ketoret (incense). the cloud is impermanence with an attachment to permanence…the Divine Presence of G’d which is always available, but not always sought out by us or welcomed….it is a symbol not of passing away but of passage/movement/discontinuity without extinction, concentrating into existence and dissipating, but never evaporating completely away. but the reference to passing shadow has another connection to eternity…also in Psalms, but back at 121: “the Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shadow [tsel] upon your right hand“.  and like a shadow, you can’t be rid of…unless you step into the darkness (hold that thought). 2 verses later in the Psalm (121:7-8) we learn that “the Lord will keep you from evil [ra]; He will keep your soul. he shall guard your going out and your coming in….forever“. passage through and through.

7. verse 37, transitioning into the kedushah, “for [ba’avur] the glory of Your Name…“. we might just read “in the recognition of” as a better translation of this prepositional use of ayin bet resh…certainly that is the spirit of the first 3 iterations when read in light of scriptural antecedants. and look at verses 34 & 35 of the unetana: “Your name suits You, and You suit Your Name/You named us after You, act for the sake of Your Name“. we bear the Name that suits you well because you gave us that Name. and what is the Name of the People? well, our earliest name, the name by which our language is called is ivri or hebrew….and yes, it is from the same root ayin bet resh.

we are the People from Ever [ayin bet resh]. we are the the changeable people of permanence. we are always passing by/under/before/around/through/on/away/toward….that is the nature of t’shuvah, yes? a way of life for a changeable person, for a changeable People, but one bound to eternity.

we are like G’d EVEN in our shadowness our cloudness, and we are named by Him with His well-suited Name. we are ivri, those on the move, those who pass over, those who are recognised, those who count, those who are known, those capable of change forever…for our entire lifetime on earth and beyond.

NOW, LET’S GO BACK TO THE 5TH AYIN BET RESH, the one we started with, the one with the power number of 5:

u’t’shuvah, u’t’filah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zarah

let’s look at this a little kabbalistically. we know that we traverse the kabbalistic tree of life, going from right to left to center right, etc. traverse means ayin bet resh, to pass/passage across/through/etc. and we learn in Psalm 121 that we are shadowed by G’d on our right hand, the hand with which He gave us Torah out of the fire. now note the odd choice of the root resh ayin [ra] which almost always means evil in the Tanach. the words for “hard” are kuf shin hay [kasheh] or chet zayin kuf [chazak] or others, but not ra, so using ro’a with hag’zarah [judgement or decree] must be indicating something more than “hardship”. in fact, the primitive root means “to break”.  evil is broken in need of….well, repair. how?

kabbalistically, the left side is the side that can slip into evil. too much of the sefirot on the left can go awry in serious ways. and we know that the primary right-left apposition is chesed on the right against din/gevurah on the left. t’shuvah is a change of direction, a return to G’d. t’filah is to judge oneself (and not be judged by another) or to make clear. and tzedakah is righteous, justice, fairness. hag’zarah (gzar) usually works with din (indeed it does in the unetane tokef itself at verse 13 where it is often translated as “sentence”) and represents the side of the left gone too far…that is why it is called ra, evil.

so return, self-judgment, and righteousness, transform the evil by returning it (and us!) across [ayin bet resh is trans in latin!] to the right side and chesed. we are charged, and blessed in that charge, with being able to take aveirah (“transgression” a crossing over bounds to the left ) and making it into a good deed by bringing it over to the right(eousness) by way of t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah. G’d, who recognizes, who counts us for something, who ever seeks after us, who knows us, who names us accurately for what we are and can be…not so very far from Him, dwells as our everpresent shadow at the right hand.

we are the ivri, the trans-People of history. and we know the technology of the right hand of the tree of life, to use it for repair, for redeeming the Divine Sparks, for living the life of return. the unetane tokef doesn’t teach us to do t’shuvah, t’filah,  tzedakah to help us cope with the tough stuff. oy. we do t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah to CHANGE THE EVIL INTO THE GOOD.

now we can get back to the Kohen Gadol. aren’t you wondering why the goats, the 2 identical goats, were not “ma’avirin” before the Kohen Gadol? the Gemara on Yoma (18a) teaches that because the goats would be sin offerings for the entire People, they would remind the Kohen Gadol of the many sins and cause him anguish….THE KOHEN GADOL COULD NOT ATONE FOR THE PEOPLE IN A STATE OF SADNESS OR ANGUISH, but rather only in joy. and THAT is the spirit in which we should celebrate the unetane tokef: with joy and awe, not fear and worry.

get out there and do t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah and lead the world over [ayin bet resh] to the side of the GOOD.


chatimah tovah





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