Q. After the famous words about penitence, prayer and charity, why does Un’tanneh Tokef have such a pessimistic ending, likening man to a potsherd that breaks and grass that dies?
In truth, as Creator You know them well;
Their nature You know, You know if they fell.
Their origin dust, to dust they return:
At life’s risk comes the bread for which they so yearn.
Like a potsherd that breaks, like the grass that shall die;
Like flowers that fade, like shadows that fly;
Like a cloud that will pass, a wind that will soar;
Like dust that will float, like a dream flying o’er.
Like other High Holyday poetry, the passage offers a stark contrast between the eternal God and man, the ephemeral creature. Instead of weeping that we are not Divine and everlasting but human and time-bound, we have to prove our worth in the course of whatever span of life we are granted.
A pious teacher pointed out that there is nothing to cry about when we say, “Their origin dust, to dust they return”. The crucial thing is what we do in between coming from the dust and returning.
We can stand still and do nothing, never smiling, never loving, never stretching our minds. We can also enrich the world, even in small and apparently invisible ways.
Yes, the grass will inevitably die and the flowers will fade; the important thing is whether their brief moment of life brings light, joy and life.