The Subtext of Our Lives: Unetaneh Tokef and the High Holidays
“Who shall die by fire, and who by water?”
For many people, that question — part of the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer — is reason enough to boycott the Days of Awe. After all, the text of that famous medieval poem offers a simple, clear answer to why people suffer: it’s their own fault. They were given a perfectly fair trial (conveniently featuring God as prosecutor, defense attorney, witness, and judge), and every last chance to return to the right path, but they stubbornly refused God’s lifeline. So they died.
But the subtext of Unetaneh Tokef tells a different story, referencing the Book of Job more than any other. For example, the “still small voice” of the Unetaneh Tokef text mirrors Job 4:16. The text of the next line of Unetaneh Tokef deals with angels, as does Job 4:18. Literally reading between the lines, we find Job 4:17: “Can humans be acquitted by God?”
The text and subtext vehemently disagree, so what looks like an answer — people die because God makes them — is really a question: What’s going on here?
The High Holidays in general are like that, and so too are our lives. We have a text. But we need the subtext to understand it. And the simple, clear answers are usually wrong.
[Adapted from my essay “How was Your Flight” in Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, pub. 2010 by Jewish Lights Publishing, ed. Rabbi Larry Hoffman.]