For many Ashkenazi Jews, the liturgical climax of High Holidays is Un’taneh tokef. For others, it’s the most problematic. The description of angels recoiling and shaking before the Heavenly Judge Who sits before a ledger inscribing our names is hard to take literally.
The poetry is moving and powerful, so powerful it’s scary. If you believe it literally, then there is plenty to be scared of, for who lives but does not sin?
But what if you don’t? Remember it's poetry, and poetry doesn’t need to be taken literally. Immerse yourself in the experience without asking if the True Judge sits on high and writes in a book. Like many of the other piyutim (prayer-poems) set in the Heavenly Court, Un’taneh tokef is a powerful invitation for guided imagery, an opportunity to see ourselves as vulnerable, without actually being in danger. “Who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water?” Don’t take it literally. Even without believing that the Holy One decided that 44 specific people would burn to death on Mt. Carmel or 15,782 others would perish in an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the poetry works. Answer each question, “I will.”
Who will live? I will! Who will die? I will. Who by fire? I will. Who by water? I will.
We don’t know how and when we will die. We usually banish those thoughts, otherwise it would be impossible to live. But sometimes we must confront them. We aren’t often given a second chance but it is possible to take one, to create it for ourselves. The power of the piyut is its ability to motivate us to take the actions needed to do that.