So, I almost died this year. It happened in June, on vacation in Florida. I borrowed my Aunt Faith’s bicycle, which had canvas toe cages affixed to the pedals. Never having used these before, I came to a stop, couldn’t extricate my foot in time, and keeled over. No big deal, as I was wearing a helmet. Yet, I fell in such a way that a 2-inch stick lodged itself under my scalp. A trip to the ER, one night in the hospital, and I was on the mend. And painfully and powerfully reminded of the truth that Unetaneh Tokef wants us to absorb into our deepest souls- life is completely and totally uncertain and anything and everything can change in one minute. In seconds.
Unetaneh tokef k’dushat ha-yom, ki hu norah v’ayom- Let us proclaim the power of this day, because it is awesome and terrible. “We are forced to admit,” writes Rabbi David Teutsch, “how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we have no control.” Or, as Rabbi Richard Marmur puts it, “Yom Kippur is meant to be a near-death experience.”
Confronted with the non-negotiable reality of our own mortality, we have 2 clear choices. We can retreat into fear and depression, afraid to live lest we risk dying. Or, embracing the richness in every last moment and wresting the maximum life out of each and every day. Which will it be?
Rabbi Margaret Wenig tells the story (Mishkan Hanefesh, RH, p. 172) of Olga Blum, an 80 year old violinist, founder of Barge Music in Brooklyn. When the mayor of NY asked why she didn’t put the piano on pilings so that it wouldn’t slide during performances, she replied that, “I will never put the barge on pilings because all beauty, all art, is in some way a wrestling with impermanence and death.” So, too, for us- as we enter our High Holiday season, Unetaneh Tokef speaks to our own wrestling with impermanence and death. May we be blessed to enter into this wrestling in the deepest way, yet not from a place of illness or loss but rather from a place of gratitude and joy in each and every day.