view from central park

Challah-baking’s no escape from Unetaneh Tokef


These days of awe are such an interweaving of botha pragmatic and spiritual preparation. As I weave and braid another challah, as I drench a rosette challah wreath with another layer of honey glaze, or come up with a fun way to embellish another batch of round challahs — of all things I cut out a #ShanaTova message atop — some of the round challah snails (and I am the one who usually rolls her eyes at the ridiculousness of hashtags and their constantly being appended everywhere in social media), I listen to songs of Days of Awe that inspire, or perhaps an online class illuminating some of the liturgy.

But, thank G-d for challah-baking and all the culinary holiday preparations, which I enjoy.

Some years it’s a lot to focus on the spiritual dimensions of these days and their serious, even overwhelming, implications. In which case, I am grateful to keep my mind and hands busy preparing for these holidays culinarily. The ritual of the symbolic yehi ratson foods, and the personal familial foods that become symbolic, that become your tradition, are truly comforting. Growing up, my mother developed delicious recipes for the symbolic foods. To this day, for me those flavors are the tastes of Rosh Hashanah.

All of this leading up to Yom Kippur, a day completely absent of food.

As I simmer and cook, I think about Yom Kippur and the prophet Jonah who tried to escape from G-d, whom we read about just as twilight begins to paint the horizon of our holiest day of the year.

Sometimes when I am so focused on the culinary preparations, and grateful to be busy with them, I wonder, am I channeling my inner Jonah? Is this my way of escaping from the intensity of G-d and these overwhelming days?

I had turned on a lecture about Unetaneh Tokef, the pinnacle for Ashkenazi Jews of Rosh Hashanah and the Yom Kippur prayers in a mere paragraph or two. It is the essence of the prayers, of our deep hope and wish for year of life and health. It is especially stirring knowing the story behind it.

I often listened to the famous and very moving Kibbutz Beit Hashitah’s melody to this prayer. It was composed on the Yom Kippur of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, as news of another casualty from the kibbutz, and then another, kept coming in on the wires, in the end totaling 11 of their youth gone. Beyond the power of the prayer, this melody is almost like the anthem to the wound of a lost Israeli generation.

The song inspires, and is sobering. But the lecture was an insightful one to be sure, but the repeated language of the prayer —so sharp, so slice-y, so dice-y, life being cut and divided, and the graphic ways it can tragically end — I turn it off. I can’t listen.

As a prayer it is one of the most meaningful journeys, one of the most powerful in all of liturgy. Through evocative and poetic metaphors of human life that travel from “shards of clay in the hands of a potter” to the ephemeral “blowing winds” that come and go and, ultimately, to a “fleeting dream” — something that isn’t even real — it sensitizes and humbles us so deeply. The fragility of human life.

I can pray it, but I can’t overthink it. It paralyzes me. So I keep cutting and dicing the food, instead of thinking of G-d forbid life being treated in this way, of how real it is that we are so vulnerable — at the end of the day, just another form of material creature.

Escape. Escape. Jonah. Jonah. Jonah.

Jonah is of course punished and criticized for trying to escape from G-d. It is a wonder at how ridiculous this is — did he really think he was outsmarting and escaping G-d? That it was possible? And to think of all the people and prophets who just waited and could only hope to be chosen as vessels to receive the word of G-d, and here Jonah is chosen, only to run from it?

The midrash, however, highlights Jonah’s thoughtful and compassionate intentions on behalf of the Jewish people. Jonah was given the task of warning the city of Nineveh to change their ways and repent, or else. Rabbinic literature held that the nations are malleable and adaptable to changing their ways and repenting. Jonah sensed that his mission would be successful. Nineveh would repent. If so, then what about Jerusalem?

Prophet after prophet warned of an upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple if the Jewish people didn’t change and repent, but no dice. The Jewish people didn’t change and Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was burned and the Jews were exiled.

What a study in contrasts. Nineveh, a city that will yield and change, that will heed the word of the prophet of G-d, versus the Jewish people, stubborn, unchanging, exiled. No. Jonah wanted no part in highlighting this. He choose instead to escape and pay a high personal price for his decision to have his people’s back, so to speak.

It is an ironic twist that on Yom Kippur, nearing the pinnacle of this holiest of days, we read of an escapee from G-d. But his reasoning behind that choice imparts the teaching and the power of creating change.

Ultimately, that, too, is the message of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. As the trembling prayer reaches its conclusion, the epilogue is a primal scream from us, the congregation: “U’teshuva, u’tefillah u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et ro’ah ha-gzeirah!” (“Repentance, prayer, and charitable good deeds have the power to remove the evil decree!”)

Who are we shouting this to? To G-d? To ourselves?

We all know instances where this formula failed or fell short. It doesn’t always prevail. Unfortunately, negative decrees are manifest all around us, all the time.

But it is our call to ourselves for the potential to navigate the hard work of change: We can try and should make the effort to change and transform. It is worth it, for ourselves. And we hope that G-d will heed our cry as well.

So escaping with Jonah and his message has its time and place and I am grateful for it, as I glaze another round piping hot challah, just praying inside, please, G-d, just let it be a blessed, joyous and healthy year. #ShanaTova


Copyright Intermountain Jewish News