Unesaneh Tokef Through The Eyes of a Survivor

I find it hard to pray for myself. I always feel unworthy. I feel like a hypocrite standing before God, imperfect as I am, a sinner set in his ways, asking God to do me yet another favour I know I’ll never return. I’ve heard the speeches. I’ve heard my rav (rabbi) tell me over and over again, that regardless of what I believe will happen after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), one moment of pure teshuva (repentance), one moment of repentance, a single instant in which I tell God that were every moment that moment, I would never sin again, is enough to constitute repentance and earn me forgiveness in the eyes of God. No matter how many times I hear it, I can never accept it. Afar ani b’chayai (I am like dirt in my lifetime—taken from the Yom Kippur liturgy)—what right do I have.

So I spend my Yom Kippur doing other things. I focus on the Avodah (litany of the service in the Temple), I cry during eileh ezkerah (litany mourning the death of the Ten Sages by the Romans), I sit quietly in my seat and stare at the choirmaster as he conducts his choir. I pray for other people because I can’t pray for myself. I pray for my friends, for (some of) my family, for the countless victims of abuse and suffering, for the dead who can no longer pray for themselves, both those whose lives were taken by others, and those who took their own lives. I pray for other people, and in doing so, I pray that God sees fit to help me a little bit, too.

For the past five years, Unesaneh Tokef (litany composed by Rav Amnon of Mayence—recounted in part below) has been the hardest prayer for me to utter throughout the entire liturgy of the High Holy Days. I always end up crying bitterly. Thus far, thank God, no one has come over to me and asked me why someone so young cries so hard during a prayer that confronts mankind with a mortality that youth should find, at most, abstract. I have my answer all prepared in case someone asks me: For some of us it’s just more real. I’d like to share my thoughts on a few parts of the Yom Kippur prayers, and what they mean to me. Not all of the things apply to me, but they are all things I have come across since I started hearing people’s stories.

The story goes that Rav Amnon of Mayence, Germany was friends with the Archbishop of the town. The two would converse often, sometimes, and increasingly, about religion. The Archbishop very much wanted Rav Amnon to consider converting to Christianity. After wearing him down enough, Rav Amnon, to buy himself a little time, and to get the Archbishop to leave him alone, requested three days during which to consider the Archbishop’s request. Upon returning home, Rav Amnon was devastated by the fact that he had seemingly given the impression of even considering apostasy. He locked himself in his house for three days, repenting, begging forgiveness from God for even the slightest hint of heresy.

At the end of the three days, the Archbishop sent for Rav Amnon, to hear his decision. Rav Amnon refused to come. Eventually, the Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon forcibly brought to his residence. When confronted about his apparent disobedience, Rav Amnon told the bishop to cut off his tongue for saying he would return after three days, despite his having no intention of doing so. The Archbishop responded that he should instead cut off Rav Amnon’s legs, for it was his legs which were responsible for not bringing him after three days.

The Archbishop ordered Rav Amnon’s limbs amputated, joint by joint. Following each little amputation, he asked Rav Amnon if he would agree to convert. Rav Amnon refused. When both his arms and legs had been cut off, the Archbishop sent Rav Amnon back home on a stretcher, his severed limbs beside him. A few days later, on Rosh HaShana (Jewish New Year), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought, weak, bloody, and dying, to the synagogue. Right before the chazzan (cantor) recited kedusha (holy prayer recited by the cantor), Rav Amnon requested that he be brought before the ark. With his last breath, he recited Unesaneh Tokef, and passed from this world. I read the story every year before saying Unesaneh tokef; it never ceases to amaze me how a man so broken, so forsaken by his God, could hold onto faith so strongly. And with that in mind, I begin: Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom.

 It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself.

You alone, God, know; You alone bear witness when the door is closed; You alone bear witness when a child is too afraid to speak; You alone can attest to the atrocity that tens of thousands of Your children experience every day, every week, and every year. You alone record it, and reckon it, remember it, and judge it. You alone can see the truth even if everyone else calls it a lie. That book of yours records and reports all those times a child cried alone, begging someone, anyone, to help.

 All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

Please, God, let this be the year we get justice.

 On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed…who will live and who will die.

Who will survive, and who will try their hardest, but eventually let go.

Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time.

How many more will be added to The Wall.

Who by sword?

Who will cut just a little too deep.

Who by beast?

Who will run afoul of their dealer.

Who by famine, and who by thirst?

Who will die as a result of an eating disorder.

Who by upheaval?

Who will be forced out onto the street to escape an abusive home.

Who by plague?

Who will contract HIV from a rapist who didn’t wear a condom.

Who by strangling?

Who will hang themselves.

Who by stoning?

Who will jump.

Who will rest?

Maybe this year he’ll stop.

 Who will wander?

Maybe these foster parents won’t be as bad.

Who will live in harmony?

Maybe my husband won’t force me tonight.

Who will be tormented?

My friend gave me a number to a shelter.

Who will enjoy tranquility?

Will he finally give the Get.

Who will suffer?

Will we ever see our children again.

Who will be impoverished?

Will anyone ever hire us again if we go to the police.

Who will be enriched?

How many more hundreds of thousands of dollars will be raised to help some child rapist while we have to literally beg for money.

Who will be degraded?

Maybe we really were asking for it.

Who will be exalted?

When will they finally celebrate a criminal going to prison instead of celebrating his release.

Fast forward to the close of Neilah (lit. closing [of the gates]), the very last time we’re given on Yom Kippur to beseech God for the coming year:

May it be your will, God, who hears the sound of our cries, that you place our tears in your flask to remain; and rescue us from all cruel and harsh decrees, for to you alone do our eyes look.

ISN’T THAT DAMN FLASK OF YOURS FULL ALREADY?! HOW MUCH LONGER! HOW MANY MORE YEARS! HOW MANY MORE THOUSANDS, HOW MANY MORE MILLIONS, HOW MANY MORE DEAD CHILDREN , HOW MANY MORE CUTS, HOW MANY MORE PILLS, HOW MANY MORE NIGHTS SPENT IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM, HOW MANY MORE THERAPY SESSIONS, HOW MANY MORE FLASHBACKS, HOW MANY MORE PANIC ATTACKS, HOW MANY MORE FINGERS DOWN HOW MANY MORE THROATS, HOW MANY DIVES OFF THE EDGES OF BUILDINGS, HOW MANY BODIES SWINGING FROM HOW MANY MORE ROPES, HOW MANY NIGHTS SPENT SOAKING HOW MANY MORE PILLOWS—HOW MANY TEARS WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO REALIZE THAT THAT DAMN FLASK OF YOURS IS ALREADY FULL?

Enough. Please. Enough. One day, I hope, my, and everyone else’s prayers will be answered.

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