Heart of Compassion: Unetaneh Tokef

Many of you have met my mother. She has a friendly demeanor, an easy smile, and a nonstop sense of humor. Over the last decade, she’s re-evaluated her life, and consciously chosen to become an easygoing person.

But she’s had a difficult year. Last fall, her brother-in-law died. Four months later her sister died. Six months later her best friend, that is, her dog Billy, died. Two weeks later, she had a heart attack.

Of course I tried to find some rational thread through my fears: Why a heart attack now? Is the stress of grief finally too much? Did her heart wait to fail until her elderly dog no longer needed her care? Or did her body simply follow the rhythm of its own internal processes, sped up perhaps by her absolute refusal to take any recommended medical tests?

I didn’t need answers to these questions in order to book my airline ticket. I headed to New York to be with her in the hospital.

But the questions kept on coming.

From my brother’s home, I took the subway to Queens Boulevard Extended Care.

Across from me on the subway a woman held a Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlet. The headline read, “Does God really care about us?”

So I wondered: Does God care? In what way? Does God make a plan for our lives, and then watch as we grow into it? Does God leave us free to plan our own lives, but intervene when our choices go way off track? Does God wait quietly until our needy hearts and minds reach out?

What kind of Being is God, anyway?

As I exited the subway station, a young woman approached me. (I am not making this up.) She seemed determined to walk with me.

She asked, “Have you read the book of Mormon?”

“Yes, I have,” I answered.

“Well, what did you think of it?”

“I thought it was…very mythological.”

At this point, she stereotyped me as an atheist, and asked,

“Do you ever pray?”

“Yes, I do. Many times every day.”

“Well,” and here was her big missionary move, “maybe tonight you could try praying that you will find the true religion.”

“Oh yes,” I said, “I pray that every day.”

“Wow,” she said, “no one ever gives me that answer.”

Then I asked her a question. “Is this Woodhaven Boulevard?”

I needed some certainty about something.

As I walked along Woodhaven Boulevard, I thought about the young missionary, and her certainty that God has a plan for each of us. And how this certainty must give her comfort.

I don’t have any certainty, but still I manage to find comfort. And maybe I can use the famous Rosh Hashanah prayer Unetaneh Tokef to explain how.

The author of Unetaneh Tokef  begins by explaining to the Divine Judge how the Day of Judgment is supposed to work:

All creatures pass before You. You open the book of chronicles. Yes, it’s true, we human beings write the book in our own personal handwriting. But you, God, issue the verdict.

Then the author switches to the third person, and observes, On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

And then the author wonders: How many will pass away? How many will be born? Who will live peacefully? Who will be agitated? Who will be in trouble with the law? Who will be in an earthquake or a fire or a flood?

Whatever the verdict, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous giving) make it easier.

That’s the summary.

This year, Unetaneh Tokef speaks directly to my heart, helping me understand what we can and cannot control.

Yes, my mother avoided going to the doctor. That much is written in her own hand.

Exactly what resulted from her choices – that was out of her hands.

She has done deep teshuvah over the last ten years. Her compassion towards her caregivers lowers her stress. That, too, is in her hands.

Her compassion also puts her caregivers at ease. But their reactions are not in her hands.

Unetaneh Tokef reminds me that the only thing in our hands is the ability to reach out with love.

With teshuvah: reaching to repair connections within our close relationships.

With tefillah: reaching out to God to begin a conversation.

With tzedakah: reaching out widely and anonymously, to people we may not even know.

But, to borrow from the imagery of the prayer, that is the book written in our own hand, the book that God reads. These actions make a difference.

And that comforts me.

But there is more.

A legend has grown up around the origins of Unetaneh Tokef.

Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, is a medieval Jewish leader. One day shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Archbishop of Mainz sends for Rabbi Amnon and says, “I order you to convert to Christianity.”

Rabbi Amnon says, “Let me think about this for three days.”

When Rabbi Amnon fails to return to the archbishop, the archbishop sends for him.

Rabbi Amnon is deeply upset with himself for expressing any willingness even to think about conversion, and he asks that his tongue be cut out.

But the archbishop decides instead to cut off Rabbi Amnon’s hands and feet.

Rabbi Amnon asks to be carried to schule on Rosh Hashanah. At schule, he presents the poem he has just written, the Unetaneh Tokef.

He does not survive the day.

Many of us know that Rabbi Amnon was not a real person; that Unetaneh Tokef was not written in Europe; and that the Christian establishment of Mainz was not anti-Jewish.

We know that the story is only a legend.

And still we love it — because the fictional Rabbi Amnon is not afraid to pursue deep theological questions. Or to propose what we imagine are modern answers.

In the story, Rabbi Amnon has good reason to be upset with himself. He knows that Psalm 137 says, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my tongue get stuck to the roof of my mouth.” When he asked for time to reflect on converting, he forgot his commitment to Jerusalem.

That’s why he asks the Archbishop to disable his tongue. He wants a punishment that comes straight of out God’s book, out of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.

The Archbishop is a learned Christian, and he also knows what’s in the Psalms. He knows what’s in God’s book, but he doesn’t care.

As Rabbi Amnon lives, briefly, with the archbishop’s cruel punishment, he prays:

God, I know I made a mistake – this much is written in my own hand.

But would you please take responsibility for judging me yourself, and not leave it in the hands of this crazy, power-hungry political animal?

Even in his pain and suffering, Rabbi Amnon believes that a power of deep compassion is at work in the universe.

And that is his definition of God: the Great Heart of Compassion.

Even if the heart seemed to be beating elsewhere for a moment, Rabbi Amnon does not hesitate to call on it.

His call begins with traditional, mythological language about God. “Please, God,” he says, “come forward and order the universe for us.” He hopes for an anthropomorphic, personified judge to set things right.

He knows he might not get that.

But he still believes in the Great Heart of Compassion. Maybe it does not exist in a heavenly court. But it does exist in the human heart. And, when it’s present in the human heart, it’s still the power of God.

It’s present whenever we engage in teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.

This much is in our hands.

Rosh Hashanah comes at a specific time of year, whether we are ready for it or not.

Some years, family and friends surround us. Love and compassion are in the air.

Some years we are alone, and memories of family and friends make us sad.

Some years, we take teshuva very seriously and we approach situations that are wrapped in anger, fear, frustration, or resentment.

Some years, we are beset by troubles and it seems as though the New Year brings a terrifying journey into the unknown.

Will we live? Will we die? Will we be in war, earthquake, recession? Where is everyone? Who has to stop being angry first? What does Rabbi Amnon have to say to us now?

Rabbi Amnon says that our questions are part of a process.

We cry out to a power beyond us, in tefillah, in prayer. We may cry out for a long time. We may pray that others reach out to us in teshuvah and tzedakah.

But if we get no answers, we turn to teshuvah and tzedakah ourselves. That’s the choice left for us, and that is the right choice.

No one, not even the dying Rabbi Amnon himself, is too weak to be part of the Great Heart of Compassion.

This is his message of care, downloaded and transmitted when he was most spiritually open.

I realize that Rabbi Amnon of Mainz did not exist. But it doesn’t matter to me, because I think his teaching is true.

I want the compassionate heart, the heart open to teshuvah and tzedakah, to be the heart that judges me throughout the coming year.

And when I judge others, I want my own compassionate heart to preside.

And when I’m at my lowest, I want to know that there is something I can do, even if it’s as subtle as shifting a feeling.

Maybe that’s why Unetaneh Tokef says, “Let the Great Shofar be sounded, and a still small voice be heard.”

For the record, my mother is living at my brother’s house and healing slowly. She won’t be at any schule this year, but she asked me, very quietly, to send greetings to all of you.

May the Compassionate Heart in all its forms be with you in the coming year.

Shana tova.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2011

Image: capitolcitychurch.com

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