“Parsha and Purpose” – Yom Kippur 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

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“U’Netaneh Tokef: Living Our Prayers”

With all that is happening around the world, the prayer that continues to hold more meaning for me than any other is U’Netaneh Tokef, for the haunting questions that it poses:

מי יחיה ומי ימות?

Who shall live and who shall die?

מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו?

Who in his time, and who by an untimely death?

מי במים ומי באש?

Who by water and who by fire?

מי ברעש ומי במגפה?

Who by earthquake and who by plague?

For nearly a millennium, authorship of U’Netaneh Tokef has been attributed to Rav Amnon of Mainz, the leader of his German Jewish community, which experienced horrific destruction during the First Crusade. 

Yet evidence suggests that the words were most likely written by the great poet Yannai, who lived in the Land of Israel sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries.

If so, why do we generally identify Rav Amnon as the author? Especially when research shows that even those who related the story probably had knowledge of the prayer’s actual author and origin?

The answer is because Rav Amnon of Mainz and indeed his entire community personified the deeds and actions attributed to him in U’Netaneh Tokef. Bearing a name that derives from the word emunah, faith, Rav Amnon has been immortalized in the ancient prayer as a tribute to the countless souls who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the horrific years of the bloody Crusades.

So even if Rav Amnon did not compose U’Netaneh Tokef, he most assuredly “established” the text through his deeds and actions.

In the past and present, the words of U’Netaneh Tokef have captured the pathos and the promise of the Jews – an ancient people that has often paid the ultimate sacrifice for our commitment to the higher ideals of our faith and our peoplehood.

This year, its haunting words call us together not just as Jews, but as members of a global society searching for stability in a time of fragility.

Like Amnon of Mainz – who did not pen the prayer, but lived it and therefore became its author – we, too, have the opportunity to become the “authors” of the prayers we read and the Torah we study. This occurs when we internalize their messages, and their ideals to become true representatives of the vision of Judaism that we wish to study and celebrate.

In a world of so much uncertainty, we still have the capacity to be ambassadors of ideas and ideals that can transform the society around us. May we merit to author a path of purposefulness in life and good health throughout the coming year.

Wishing you and your loved ones a G’mar Chatimah Tovah.


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