U’netaneh Tokef is one of the most famous prayers in our machzor. The fame of this prayer is rooted in the challenge that it presents. The prayer boldly calls us to look at those who died in the past year and those who will die in the coming year. It’s not the most pleasant of things to think about, but it is supposed to shake us and make us aware of our surroundings. Even more so, it is to call us to action. It says “Through teshuva (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous giving), we can transcend the harshness of the decree.” While the text may seem hurtful, intense, and scary, we are to recognize the strength in ourselves to grow and improve. As Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva wrote:
Life is fragile; some of us will not be here next year.
Some of us will not be whole next year.
And it is impossible to assert real control over this future.
What can we do?
T’shuvah: We can repair our relationships with God and everybody else.
T’filah: We can build a spiritual life full of purpose.
Tzedakah: We can fight for justice and a better world.
(Mikva, Rachel. “Un’taneh Tokef: Contemporary Challenges.” Machzor: Challenge and Change. CCAR: New York, 2010. p 31-34.)
This is a difficult prayer and the following article addresses its complications.