Unetaneh Tokef: Hard Times

Unetaneh Tokef: Hard Times
Sign on a business that says "Due to COVID-19 we are CLOSED until further notice," illustrating a post about how the prayer Unetaneh Tokef offers wisdom for challenging times

Unetanah Tokef is a poetic prayer with guidance for hard times.

At least, that’s how I read Unetaneh Tokef this year.

So that’s how I introduced it to a local Unitarian congregation.

Here is the introduction, a 15-minute video.

Below the video is a text version, if you prefer it. But please note: the video has images and sounds that the text does not.


Shalom! I’m Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan. It is great to be with you via video.

And I am honoured to be part of your project of collecting wisdom from world traditions on the question: How do we show up in these times?

It’s not a theoretical question. In just the last 16 months, I lost friends and colleagues to COVID, a young family friend to overdose, both my cats to a feline coronavirus. I grieved with Indigenous students and colleagues over lost children. A friend in lost their home to fire, a relative rode out a flood, I survived a heat wave that killed 800 people in our province. One friend was attacked by a grizzly bear. I’ve read about 45 local coyote attacks, and 35 coyotes will soon be dead. My daughter’s partner is out of work due to COVID layoffs. Our family is split over support for vaccinations. I’m trying to help a friend with refugee status come to Canada, but the system is overloaded and the prospects are grim.

And these are just some of the ways that “these times” have touched my life. And, because I have provincial health care, and my employer promised to lay no one off due to the pandemic, I’m safer than most. But, these days, I’m just putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t have energy to spare for having feelings about it all; that’s on hold.

But I do have spiritual resources that give me comfort and guidance. And I’d like to share one of them with you. It’s an old poetic Hebrew prayer called Unetaneh Tokef, and it’s about how to show up in challenging times. First, it talks about the inner disarray we feel; then it names what is happening in the world; and then it lists three tools for coping.

Unetankeh Tokef was written more than 1,000 years ago, by an author whose name we no longer know. And, in fact, it has passed into the public domain. Mozart used part of it in his great Requiem Mass, and Leonard Cohen used part of it in his song Who by Fire.

Unetaneh Tokef is part of the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, that we celebrated earlier this month. Literally, Rosh Hashanah means “the beginning of the year.” But the holiday also has other nicknames. We call it Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembering who we are. And we call it Yom Teruah, the day of the shofar call, the sound of the ram’s horn. Some say the sound is a wake up call. It helps us remember that life is precious and life is precarious.

We also call the new year Yom HaDin, the day of Judgment. It’s a day—traditionally the first of ten days—for asking deep existential questions. The kind of questions that tear through the curtain of everyday life. Have I developed inner resources? Can I rely on strong interpersonal relationships? Do I live in a good community?

Unetaneh Tokef is a prayer for the Day of Judgment. Its name, Unetaneh Tokef means: let’s recognize the power of this day. First, let’s notice how we feel, then take stock of what is, and then decide how to move forwards.

The first part of Unetaneh Tokef describes a scene that takes place in heaven. And sometimes, in Jewish writing, “heaven” is a metaphor for our inner life. Heaven is a spiritual place; so is the human psyche. Heaven exists on a higher dimension; so do profound thoughts and feelings. And thus, Unetaneh Tokef says, when times are hard, a shofar sounds inside of us, a wake up call. Then, images from the past year dance before us. It’s as if a book about our life falls open. And we realize: we are its author. So we ask ourselves: How did we rise to the challenges cope in the last year?

Here are some of the words of Unetaneh Tokef:

Let’s recognize the holiness of this awesome and terrifying day. Today, you open the book of memories, written by each human being in their own handwriting. A great shofar sounds, and a still small voice is heard. This is the Day of Judgment. Even the angels tremble in fear.

And then, Unetaneh Tokef says, God plans the year. And, because times are precarious, so much can happen. Over the year, we will find out—in the words of Unetaneh Tokef:

How many will pass away, how many will be born

Who will live and who will die

Who will live a long life and who a short one

Who by fire, who by flood

Who by violence, who by beast

Who by hunger, who by plague

Who will grow poor, who will grow rich

Who will be humbled, and who will be raised up

And then, just as Unetaneh Tokef has opened your inner well of uncertainty and despair, it tells you what you can do. You can go back to the big existential questions: Have I developed inner resources? Can I rely on strong interpersonal relationships? Do I live in a good community? And you can point yourself towards answering “yes” to all of them. Or, as Unetaneh Tokef says, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah soften the harsh judgment.

Have you developed strong inner resources? You can always strengthen them with tefillah. It means prayer, but originally it meant spiritual self-examination. Asking ourselves objectively what is going on in our thoughts and feelings. For example: are we angry at greedy politicians, but taking it out on our family? Do we resent the needs of others because we feel guilty that we haven’t helped them enough? Tefillah helps us untangle our inner knots, so we can think and plan more clearly.

Can you rely on strong interpersonal relationships? You can strengthen them through teshuvah. Literally, teshuvah means return—return to relationship. When you do teshuvah, you recognize that you did harm, you want to fix it, you apologize, you offer reparation, and you do not repeat the harm. Teshuvah helps to repair rifts caused by conflicts, both small and huge. It helps us restore the circles of support that we need.

Do you live in a good community? You can strengthen it through tzedakah. Literally, tzedakah means justice, and in hard times it means giving help to those who face the most harm. You can take small personal actions, donate funds to agencies, work in coalitions to change laws and institutions. Tzedakah keeps people alive and it helps re-balance a community.

That’s the Unetaneh Tokef road map. Recognize our feelings and our questions. Take stock of what is at stake. And then do what you can, to help yourself, your relationships, and your community.

***For a different take on Unetaneh Tokef, click here.

Video prepared for South Fraser and Calgary Unitarian Churches. Photo: CBC

    1. Felishia, thank you so much for writing! It’s wonderful to learn about your school. Wishing you all success and good health in the new year.

  1. As a Canadian ( Vancouver born & raised , UBC educated ) having lived 20 + years in the US , I see how much America needs Tzedakah , how much her citizens need to engage in Teshuvah, No doubt we Canadians need to do so also.

    May our prayers include a call for all to do the inner work needed to face themselves clearly , to contribute to their community, and to embrace the reality that we ALL suffer and need relationships to heal.

    Thank you , Rabbi , for the writings and messages you share with us .


    1. Amen, Steven. Wishing all of us a healthy future!

  2. I really enjoyed this d’var Torah, Laura. It gives me much to think about and a spiritual connection to the holidays this year. Happy and healthy new year to you and your family.

    1. Thank you so much, Lynne! Shana tova and all the best to everyone in our extended family!

  3. I’m grateful to be taking “Encountering the Other” though which I found this thoughtful and heartfelt presentation. It rips tenderly, fiercely through the loneliness of laying low in the suburbs in yet another wave and offers the nourishment of soulful reflections.

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