Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Unetaneh Tokef
The Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah is marked by three special additions to the repetition of the Amidah: Malkhuyot (Kingship), Zikhronot (Memory), and Shofarot (Sounding of the Shofar). Each of these sections contains a collection of verses from Torah, Psalms, and Prophets that use a theme word: melekh, zekher, and shofar. These verses, along with the poems that introduce each portion and the shofar blasts that close it, invite us to consider how power, memory, and loud calls to action connect to this holy day of repentance.
This special portion of the Musaf service begins with a prayer by the congregation asking God to be with the messengers of the people of Israel and a response by the leader asking for God to give them the power of proper speech on behalf of the community. How do you relate to the prayer leader during a service? Do you see that person as your representative to God, as a guide for your own worship, or as unconnected to your personal prayers of the heart and soul? How can you be a participant in a service led by someone else while still taking responsibility for your own thoughts and intentions? How is this different when the leader is on a screen rather than standing in front of you?
Malkhuyot ⋅ Kingship
We begin the Malkhuyot section with the Great Aleinu, a familiar daily prayer that takes on special resonance as we sing it in the Rosh Hashanah nusah and prepare for full prostration. When we reach the line “Va’anahnu korim” (“And so we bow”), we bend to our knees on the floor and then lie flat on our stomachs in a posture of total submission. Try this posture at home, perhaps on a yoga mat or cushion. How does it feel to be fully prostrated? How does it change the tone of your prayer to speak from that position? Do you feel more permission to participate in this act during services at home, where you have more space and privacy than at the synagogue?
As discussed in the entry on Avinu Malkeinu, “kingship” can be a useful metaphor for God’s power. For some, though, the masculine and monarchic connotations of this word are unhelpful. How do you understand the idea of a “king” in our time? What does it mean to bow to a king? What does it mean to ask a king for a favor?
People have different experiences with authority. How do your ideas about power and sovereignty connect with authority figures in your own life? Are there authority figures you look to as models of what positive power could be?
Deuteronomy 33:5, cited as part of this section, reads:
וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן מֶלֶךְ בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
God became king in Jeshurun, as the leaders of the people gathered with the tribes of Israel.
What does it mean for God to “become king” as the leaders gather with the people? If you have been involved with B’nai Jeshurun in the past, how has this particular community helped you to understand the Divine in a new way? Have you been a part of other spiritual communities that opened your eyes to new ways of understanding awe and power?
Zikhronot ⋅ Memory
“Memory is the lifeblood of Jewish being,” wrote Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Rosh Hashana, the least historical of Judaism’s holy days, is still called Yom ha-Zikaron (the day of remembrance) to underscore the role of memory in the process of introspection.” How does memory play a role in your Jewish identity? Do you have a sense of ancestral memory, beyond your own lifetime? How do your personal memories fit with the communal narrative of Jewish history?
Psalm 106:45 reads, “God remembered the covenant and, with great love, relented” What does it mean for God to “remember the covenant,” a phrase often repeated throughout the Tanakh? Why do we need to remind God of this agreement with our ancestors, which defined the Israelites as a special people? The section also refers to God’s covenant with Noah, to never again destroy humanity for its sins. What does it mean for human beings to remind God of this promise?
In her commentary on this section in Mahzor Lev Shalem, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster writes, “God remembers us even when we think that we are disgraced or abandoned.” What does it mean to be remembered? How does it feel to know that someone, or something, is thinking of you at a time of need? Do their thoughts alone comfort you?
“Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption,” said the Baal Shem Tov. Sometimes we need to forget moments of our lives in order to continue living. How do you balance letting go of what is painful with remembering challenges in order to learn from them?
Think about something from the past year that you find yourself avoiding in your mind. Why is it hard to think about this? Are there actions you can take now to make this memory less painful?
Shofarot ⋅ Sounding of the Shofar
This section focuses on the revelation at Sinai, a moment of glory and awe as God revealed God’s self to the Israelites. Have you ever witnessed a power greater than you could understand? What did it feel like? What did it sound like?
In many of the verses cited in this portion, the blast of the shofar is compared to thunder. Imagine that you are in a powerful storm. What effect does the loud thunder have on your body? What does it mean to feel truly shaken by it? Can you imagine bringing that feeling to this moment of prayer?
Revelation implies that a great truth is revealed. Think of a time when you had an important realization. How did it feel to understand something that you’d never understood before? How did you arrive at that new understanding?
A beautiful moment of Shofarot involves singing Psalm 150, “Hallelu!” Watch this Zoom recording of Psalm 150 to the tune composed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (used for many years at BJ). How do musical instruments, many of which are mentioned in this psalm, help you connect to prayer? Which instruments do you find to be the most evocative? At BJ, community members traditionally bring their own shofars and blow them as we sing the line, “Praise God with the shofar call.” Imagine that you are sitting in the sanctuary, hearing these shofar blasts amidst the many other instruments. What do you feel?
For Families and Kids:
Who is the strongest person you know? Do you think that strength is only physical? Can you imagine a different kind of strength? Think about people who represent these different kinds of strength. What kind of strength is the most important? Think about which kinds of strength God represents.
Think of your earliest memory. Is it hard to remember? Were there other people in your family there? Ask them to describe what happened. Do they remember it differently? Why do you think people remember different things from the past?
Do you play any instruments? If so, how do you feel when you play your instrument? How does it feel when you hear really loud music? Do you like the feeling, or is it overwhelming? Imagine the loudest sound in the world. How would you react?