04 October 2008

Unetaneh Tokef

As part of the service for the second day of Rosh Hashanah this past week, our rabbi asked me to give an introduction (of sorts) to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. The text for this intro follows below.


We are about to read the Unetaneh Tokef, proclaiming a day filled with awe, and there is a passage that I think is there specifically to help us face the secrets we have collected over the last year. In addressing our hearts and minds to God, we say “You record and seal, count and measure; You remember even what we have forgotten.”*

I want to talk more about secrets. In May of this year, my maternal grandmother died at 95, after several years of being both physically and mentally incapacitated. Elinor and I were never very close, though both of us tried many times to build a better relationship. In the few years between my getting married and the full onset of her dementia we did finally reach a kind of understanding—though it was by and large an intellectual one, rather than the emotional connection that I desired.

But emotionally, we were always out of sync. To me, Elinor was stern and cold, emotionally distant—a distance I felt all the more strongly because she (and my grandfather, too) seemed to have no past. Sure, there was a kind of benign recent past, consisting of snippets of my mother’s childhood, or the trips my grandparents had taken to other countries. There were a few genuinely old family friendships, and a smattering of cousins with whom the family was still in touch. But my grandmother had actively excised much of her past, and always said that she did not want to talk about it. And meanwhile, I had a difficult time accepting the vigorous, enforced lack of sentimentality that Elinor needed to sustain this excision.

However, it turns out that I was mistaken about my grandmother. Or, if not mistaken, simply more confused by her now than I was when she was alive. In the period following her death, my parents found themselves going through the many boxes stashed in the house where my grandparents had lived for more than fifty years.

What turned up were photographs dating back to the 1930s, all annotated in my grandmother’s careful hand with the location, the date, and the people—the names of cousins, friends, or neighbors—written on them. Box after box of photographs. And box after box of pieces of paper, noting who had visited for a holiday, which gifts she had sent to which children or grandchildren, even lists of who had neglected to call for her birthday in a particular year.

What my parents found, in other words, was my family history, after a fashion. At least some of the history that Elinor so vigorously denied caring about had, in fact, been maintained by her— secretly.

So back to that line from Unetaneh Tokef—“You record and seal, count and measure; You remember even what we have forgotten.”

I know, of course that the “you” in this passage is not my grandmother. And yet Elinor is on my mind this holiday. Not only because she was, it seems, recording, counting, and measuring the twists and turns of her life so diligently.

She is on my mind because as I think about the words and deeds of my own life over the last year, I cannot help but think about my relationship with her, and about this secret that she kept—an aspect of her that might have helped us develop a better emotional connection and revealed her to be a more sentimental person, if only I had known. If only she had let me know.

As we read Unetaneh Tokef, and reflect on life, we may try to think about our own secrets from the last year, both the things forgotten and those we have tried hard to forget. Hopefully, we can remember these secrets, engage them, and confront them, in order to have better, healthier, and more open relationships with ourselves and with others.

*Text translation from page 283 of The New Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, edited by Rabbis Sidney Greenberg and Jonathan D. Levine, The Prayer Book Press, 1995.


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