I used to think I understood the U’netaneh Tokef, the famous High Holiday piyyut, or liturgical poem. It’s expression centered on the sublime eternity of God, the fleeting and uncertain condition of human life (how many will live and how many will die this year?), and the power of repentance, prayer, and charity to relieve the severity of the divine decree if not the decree itself (a fine point that often gets lost in translation). One day we die. The question is how and under what conditions? Whom by fire? Whom by water? Most readings tend to stop at this pious, picaresque point as a guide to fear and terror before God, pictures of human submission to the fiat of fate, and the importance of right human action on the meditation anticipating today, in life, the great Day of Death and Judgement. In this picture, mortal human communities, the community of Israel, are but sheep.
But the poem does more than that if you look closely and keep reading. The first thing to note is that at no point in this part of the liturgy is human sin and sinfulness at all mentioned as basic to this terrifying reckoning. This image is ontological, not ethical, about being and non-being before which there is no ultimate appeal. But even more to the point is the mirroring that appears at the bottom of the poem. Now we are given to see how God’s Name matches God and how God matches God’s Name. The one reflects the other. The names are נָאֶה (na’eh), connoting a match or a mirror marked by freshness, fineness, fittingness, and fairness. So the not pious upshot is now this. God’s Name reflects or mirrors “our name,” the name Israel, and the name Israel reflects or mirrors God’s name, which means, at the conclusion of the poem, that it is not so much for us to act, because, after all, we really cannot. God should rather act for the sake of God’s Name and sanctify God’s Name through those who sanctify God’s Name. On the Day of Judgment, God is called upon to sanctify God’s own name in mirror image to the sanctifying power that the community of Israel holds over God.
This is canny prayer. It only looks docile and submissive. But it’s not. The u’netaneh tokef starts sheep-like only to soften the severity of a divine decree by way of right human action and then it utterly flips the very ratio defining human precarity and divine power. The image of the great and terrible King has no choice once brought into this mirroring logic. After all, the only way for God to sanctify God’s name is to sanctify the people, to lift them up out of the human condition and to join them into a reflection of God and the community of angels, the subject of the sublime Kedushah that follows immediately upon recitation of the U’netanah Tokef in the liturgical order of the Mahzor, high holiday prayer book.
Here’s the entire u’netaneh tokef and translation that grabbed from Sefaria.com with a fix here and there.
Let us describe
תֹּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם.
the great holiness of this day,
כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיוֹם.
for it is awesome and frightening.
וּבוֹ תִנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶֽךָ.
On this day, Your Kingship is uplifted,
וְיִכּוֹן בְּחֶֽסֶד כִּסְאֶֽךָ.
and Your throne is established with kindness,
וְתֵשֵׁב עָלָיו בֶּאֱמֶת.
and You sit upon it in truth.
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן
True that You are judge,
וּמוֹכִֽיחַ וְיוֹדֵֽעַ וָעֵד.
admonisher, knower and witness;
וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה.
and You inscribe, seal, record and count,
וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת.
and recall all forgotten things.
וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵֽפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת.
You open the book of records
and it reads of itself;
וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ.
and the signature of every man is in it.
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע.
A great shofar is sounded,
וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
and a silent, gentle voice is heard;
and the angels are alarmed,
וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן.
pangs of fear and trembling seize them,
and they declare,
הִנֵּה יוֹם הַדִּין.
“behold the Day of Judgment.”
לִפְקֹד עַל צְבָא מָרוֹם בַּדִּין.
The heavenly host is arraigned in judgment,
כִּי לֹא יִזְכּוּ בְעֵינֶֽיךָ
for they are not guiltless in Your eyes
וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶֽיךָ
All those who dwell on earth pass before You
like young sheep.
כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ.
As a shepherd inspects his flock,
מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּֽחַת שִׁבְטוֹ.
making his sheep pass under his rod,
כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה.
so do You cause to pass, count, number,
וְתִפְקֹד נֶֽפֶשׁ כָּל חָי.
and review the soul of every living being,
וְתַחְתֹּךְ קִצְבָה לְכָל בְּרִיּוֹתֶֽיךָ.
determining the life-span of every creature;
וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם:
and You record the decree of their judgment.
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
On Rosh Hashana their decree is inscribed,
וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן.
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
how many will pass away
and how many will be created,
מִי יִחְיֶה. וּמִי יָמוּת.
who will live and who will die;
who will come to his timely end,
וּמִי לֹא בְקִצּוֹ.
and who to an untimely end;
מִי בַמַּֽיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ.
who will perish by fire and who by water;
מִי בַחֶֽרֶב. וּמִי בַחַיָּה.
who by the sword and who by beast;
מִי בָרָעָב. וּמִי בַצָּמָא.
who by hunger and who by thirst;
מִי בָרַֽעַשׁ. וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה.
who by earthquake and who by the plague;
מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה.
who by strangling and who by stoning;
who will be at rest
and who will wander about;
who will have serenity
and who will be confused;
who will be tranquil
and who will be tormented;
who will become poor
and who will become wealthy;
who will be brought to a low state
and who will be uplifted.
Congregation followed by Chazzan:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה
But repentance, and prayer and charity
מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֽוֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה:
annul the severity of the evil decree.15
כִּי כְּשִׁמְךָ כֵּן תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ.
For as Your Name, so is Your praise,16
קָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וְנֽוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת.
You are slow to anger and easy to pacify;17
כִּי לֹא תַחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הַמֵּת.
For You do not desire death [for the sinner]
כִּי אִם בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה.
but that he turn from his evil way and live.18
וְעַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ
And even until his dying day,
You wait for him—
אִם יָשׁוּב מִיַּד תְּקַבְּלוֹ:
if he repents, You immediately accept him.
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא יוֹצְרָם.
True, You are their Creator,
וְאַתָּה יוֹדֵֽעַ יִצְרָם.
and You know their impulse
כִּי הֵם בָּשָׂר וָדָם:
that they are [but] flesh and blood.
אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
Man, his beginning is from dust
and ends in dust;
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ.
risking his life, he gets his bread,
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶֽרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר.
he is like a potsherd that is breakable,
like grass that withers,
like the flower that fades,
like the shadow that passes,
like the cloud that vanishes,
like the wind that blows,
like the dust that flies,
and like a fleeting dream.
וְאַתָּה הוּא מֶֽלֶךְ
But You are the King,
אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם:
the Almighty, the living and everlasting God.
The Ark is closed
אֵין קִצְבָה לִשְׁנוֹתֶיֽךָ.
There is no end to Your years
and there is no limit
to the length of Your days.
are the chariots of angels who glorify You,
and there is no way to describe
Your imperceptable Name.
שִׁמְךָ נָאֶה לְךָ
Your Name is fitting for You,
וְאַתָּה נָאֶה לִשְׁמֶֽךָ.
and You are fitting of Your Name;
And our name
You have called by Your Name.
עֲשֵׂה לְמַֽעַן שְׁמֶֽךָ.
Act for the sake of Your Name,
וְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ
and sanctify Your Name
עַל מַקְדִּישֵׁי שְׁמֶֽךָ.
through those who sanctify Your Name.