Standing in synagogue this past Rosh Hashanah, an irreverent thought sprang, unbidden, into mind when the cantor arrived at the famous (or, rather, infamous) prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, which lists deaths that could eventuate in the upcoming year – “who by fire, who by sword, who my beast…” God, are you threatening me? thought I, at the moment when just such a thought could be most damning.
The hilarity of the moment, set against the determined somberness of the scene, brought on a burst of laughter, which I desperately struggled to smother. My blasphemy need not thwart the careful concentration of the other swaying, teary-eyed and appropriately quaking attendees. An awkward snort prevailed, which I easily passed off as a nose-blow, hiding my face in a tissue to authenticate my piety.
But the thought, and the frustrated emotions brought with it, did not leave me after exiting the prayer service that day. The ominous nature characterizing a good portion of the High Holiday liturgy can be difficult to understand. And I suspect I’m not alone in these struggles.
The writers of our holiday liturgy (in the case of Unesaneh Tokef, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, 11th century, tortured for refusing a Christian conversion according to popular tradition) were no fools. On the holiest days of the year, they sought to compose lines that would stir religious fervor and zeal in the hearts of repenters, proving successful for centuries. If, today, we find ourselves struggling to relate to these prayers, it stands to reason that the change has taken place within us.
But what changed? While fear used to motivate, even inspire, mine is a generation that views threats as challenges and raises a skeptical brow at austere ultimatums. Reverence often seems a throwback to old times, and absolute authority, whether in classroom or in the synagogue, is a concept increasingly more difficult to swallow.
As a counselor at an Orthodox Jewish sleep-away camp this past summer, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand. I worked with forty teenage girls, ages 15 and 16, and quickly discovered the most dependable way to get nothing done: threats.
A quick anecdote to illustrate the point: when color-war rolled around, to the dismay of some and adulation of others, it fell on my shoulders to inspire the creativity, enthusiasm (measured exclusively by volume in the dining room), and leadership potential in my campers. Those campers of mine, chafing at the bit for authority, trotted off, whistles hung importantly around necks, to cut, paste, glue, sing, swim and dance the day away. Naturally, the campers who remained lounging in the back of the bunkhouse were not the ones easily inspired by the day’s competitive, pink and green flurry.
My first tactic to get those recalcitrant few out of the bunkhouse and onto the field: the nonchalant, well-it’s-your-loss shrug. No movement. Second tactic: bribes. No response (apparently stale cookies held little clout). Frustrated, I resorted to the last and final course of action: if you don’t leave the bunkhouse right now, I’m going to have to… call your mother, dock your cell phone privileges, send you home. The end of my sentence would not have made a difference, the response to the first half was so complete. In a moment I became the challenger, and the enemy. While before my campers had been laxly apathetic, they now sat up, alert, suspicious and determined to move nowhere.
Who by sword, who by fire; the stakes are definitely higher than leaving camp a week early. But the response I witnessed in my campers, and in myself, is not the quiet for which I had hoped. Was this true a generation ago? I cannot say. Nor will I hypothesize about why my generation has such a hard time fearing authority.
What I can propose is a refocus on the positive, making the long High Holiday services a more pleasant, less conflicted, prayer experience. There are many prayers within the extensive liturgy that focus on Divine love and compassion, from the repeated recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, to the beautiful description of the Jewish people as God’s handiwork (pe’ulatecha), beloved (dodeinu), treasure (segulatecha) and more. Selecting to focus on positive imagery and the message of forgiveness and progress can quell our conflicted feelings at the prayers that seem to daunt and portend.