The Un’taneh Tokef calls to mind the profound uncertainties with which we live each day, and the reality that life often unfolds in ways beyond our control. The words reflect the blinding fears we speak of only in the darkest hours of night and the questions we harbor deep inside: What is our fate and how does it all end? Who among us will survive? How do we proceed, knowing that the balance between life and death is far more delicate than we might ever have imagined?
The language of the prayer is blunt and unembellished: “Who by fire and who by water? /Who by sword and who by beast?/ Who by hunger and who by thirst?/ Who by earthquake and who by drowning? /Who by strangling and who by stoning?....” With its harrowing imagery and chilling propositions, it leaves very little to the imagination. As listeners, we are left to confront the image-reel in our minds, filled with horrors of wildfires burning out of control and floods overtaking cities, blood shed at the hands of man and beast, and violence populating the earth.
The Un’taneh Tokef speaks to the way we live and the realities we encounter, every day. It reflects the suffering and the sadness, the destruction and the devastation, the terror and the loss we see all around us, all the time. It speaks about the cruel nature of randomness and the inexplicable misfortune of chance. Its words emphasize, unequivocally: Though we are a part of this world, we do not preside over it; and neither the whims of nature nor humanity can be foreseen.
The Un’taneh Tokef is, for some, an exercise in anguish and distress. Many experience intense grief in the wake of its poetry, and helplessness in the face of its prognostications. Indeed, the language is so graphic, I found myself searching, like many others before me, for different ways to decode its message.
How could I have predicted that my inspiration would come, from of all places a sci-fi television series? But oddly enough, it was while watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, that I was moved to look at the Un’taneh Tokef differently. There I was, scared out of my wits, when a light bulb flashed in my mind (and for those of you watching, I assure you it wasn’t a Christmas light!). Stick with me (and yes, spoilers do follow).
One of the fascinating hooks of this series is the revelation that our world exists, side by side, with a parallel universe called “The Upside Down.” As Dr. Clarke, the show’s trusty science teacher, explains: “Picture an acrobat standing on a tightrope, and the tightrope is our dimension, and our dimension, has rules. You can move forwards or backwards. But right next to our acrobat, there is a flea. Now the flea can also travel back and forth, just like the acrobat, right? But here’s where things get really interesting. The flea can also travel this way, along the side of the rope. He can even go, underneath the rope.” Just beyond the surface, just below the rope, lies a completely separate universe that we never even knew existed!! For this uninitiated student of sci-fi, this was WILD!
Now, what do parallel universes and “The Upside Down” have to do with the Un’taneh Tokef? Well, I got to thinking about these parallel universes and unseen worlds and thought, what if we looked at the Un’taneh Tokef through this sci-fi lens as well? Could it help us see the “unseen” elements of the prayer? Could it help us delve deeper into the mire, knowing there is another side to every word printed on the page? Could we find the life amidst the death, and the hope amidst the despair? If we immersed ourselves in its words, investigated their many sides and corners, and turned them over again and again, could we come up with an alternate vision of the prayer? I think so.
The “Upside Down” approach urges us to think beyond the page and behind the words, so to speak. For example if the Un’taneh Tokef teaches us that life is unpredictable in frightening and unsettling ways, we can extrapolate and surmise that life must also be unpredictable in wonderful and reassuring ways, yes? Unpredictability is a neutral condition, neither positive nor negative. Moreover, just as we cannot foresee the sadness and grief and misery that will befall us, neither can we predict the joy and gladness and wonder that will enter our lives. Indeed, just as bad things will inevitably happen to us, it is also inevitable that good things will happen too (the law of averages has got to play a part in this scenario, don’t you think?).
The “Upside Down” lens doesn’t re-write the prayer or negate the plain meaning. But it opens the prayer up to a broader context and a wider plane of interpretation. It is a tool, an agent for mining deeper meaning and substance. We know that the world can be a harsh and uncertain place; we live that every day. We also know that death and destruction and devastation are ubiquitous; we need only open our doors to see such misery. But, in this very same world, there is also a real chance we will stumble upon decency and kindness, and a real possibility of friendship and community and love.
That is what we find on the “Upside Down” of the Un’taneh Tokef—still a world of unpredictability, but one marked by hope rather than despair and love rather than fear. “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day,” we shall say, it is both awesome and full of dread.
Wishing you all a Shana Tova, a happy and healthy New Year.
Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City. She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York. Sara now volunteers as the CCAR RavBlog Member Volunteer. Interested in writing something for RavBlog? Email Sara.