Is This Yom Kippur Prayer Designed to Confront Our 'Death Phobia?'

Upon seriously considering our mortality, we begin to live life more fully.

Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor
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It’s the awareness of death that allows us to live fully in the time we have.
It’s the awareness of death that allows us to live fully in the time we have.Credit: Dreamstime
Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor

“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who at his predestined time and who before his time.” So states the "Unetaneh Tokef" ("We Shall Ascribe Holiness To This Day") prayer, before proclaiming that teshuva (repentance, introspection and change), tefilla (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) annul the decree.

The origins of this ancient prayer are shrouded in mystery. Traditionally, the author was considered to be Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a medieval Jewish leader gruesomely put to death for refusing to convert to Christianity. But Biblical scholars say the prayer is probably several centuries older and written by an unidentified rabbi in the land of Israel. Some scholars even see the text as displaying similarities to a "Hymn of Romanus upon Christ's Reappearance."

Today, the prayer remains a particularly formidable and emotive component of the Days of Awe. The tune is moving. The words are powerful.

Yet perhaps most potent is that it prompts us to think about death – something we generally feel uncomfortable with, certainly when we consider our own. In her book "The Midst of Life," the former British nurse Jennifer Worth describes a “deep seated social taboo” and a “climate of denial” surrounding the subject, arguing that its almost impossible to speak about. Her ideas are echoed by Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom School who refers to the Western world as suffering from “death phobia” and “grief illiteracy [an] absence of language for how it feels to be dying.” Jenkinson argues that this is problematic because it’s the awareness of death – and not happiness or positivity or stoicism – that allows us to live fully in the time we have. If we think there will always be more time down the road, we put off both our dreams and our obligations.

In fact, a profound awareness of death can be liberating. In “When I die: Lessons from the Death Zone,” a book written in the last few months of Philip Gould’s life, the former British Labour Party strategist argues that the “sheer intensity of death leads us to assess our world in ways we have never done before, each contributing to a kind of pre-death moment of judgement.” Gould believes that “the knowledge that you are going to die one day gives you the sense that there is meaning in your life. When you are going to die soon, you really do feel the absolute intensity of life. Life becomes completely precious, not just because there is so little of it left but because the actual nature of experience is more fulfilling, more protean than it was before.”

When I recited the Unetaneh Tokef prayer last year, I was going through a period of deep uncertainty. I had learned weeks earlier that a tumour removed from my chest had been malignant, and three days after the Yom Kippur fast, I was due to meet a sarcoma specialist for advice on the next course of action. It was important to me to approach the holiday prayers in an honest and authentic way, but found this hard to do, struggling with the question of whether this prayer should be taken literally. To what extent was my fate for the coming year, with all its health uncertainties and inevitable ups and downs, in the process of being sealed? And to what extent could my prayers make a difference to what would happen?

Confronting these questions in light of my illness helped crystallize my attempt to live life more fully, to focus on being a more caring, compassionate son and spouse, a more supportive friend, and trying not to take small things like hiking or playing football for granted.

I enter this New Year in a considerably better place. I am physically stronger and my recent six-month CT scan was clear. And with that, I find it extremely challenging to sustain a post-illness life of constant appreciation, of living each day as if one’s life is a gift – just like it's hard to maintain that feeling of relaxation experienced on holiday upon one’s return to routine.

While we don’t necessarily need to believe our fate is being sealed by a judging God on Yom Kippur, or that Unetaneh Tokef be read as a theological truism, most of us could benefit from seriously considering our mortality. I wonder if Unetaneh Tokef represents a dramatic attempt to recreate a focused experience that will redirect our consciousness toward feeling the “sheer intensity of life,” to temporarily force us out of our "death phobia" and into the "death zone" – energizing us, as Gould writes, into “assessing our world in ways we have never done before.”

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He currently works as an analyst in the Policy Planning Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and also lectures on topics of Israeli and Jewish interest.

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