Connecting Two Prayers: Untane Tokef and Aleinu

The World generally doesn't apply the term "great" where it truly belongs -- with Hashem.

Moshe Burt


This author has, in previous Rosh Hashana vorts, focused on Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, his weakening in giving the Bishop or Governor (whatever the correct title was) the perception of his consideration of possible compliance with the demand to convert, his distraught feeling that he betrayed Hashem by having given the impression that he would consider conversion and that he would give an answer to the Bishop 3 days hence, and the tefillah he composed on Rosh Hashana with his last breaths:  Untaneh Tokef as linked here and here.  

The Artscroll Rosh Hashanah Machzor (Nusach Ashkenaz page 480-481, Nusach Sefard page 476-477 as well as Yom Kippur Machzorim) relates how Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, upon his refusal to convert, was carried home from the Bishop's palace as a mutilated cripple, along with his amputated hands and feet and composed Untaneh Tokef on that Rosh Hashanah:

When Rosh Hashanah arrived..., R' Amnon asked to be carried to the Ark [Aron HaKodesh].  Before the congregation recited Kedushah, he asked to be allowed to sanctify Hashem's Name in the synagogue as he had in the bishop's palace.  He recited Untaneh Tokef and then died.  R' Amnon's wish was carried out, and the prayer became an integral part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  (citing from Or Zarua)

And so we recite R' Amnon's praise of Hashem each Mussaf of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed shortly therafter by Kedusha, our joining with the melachim (angels) as we proclaim our declaration of Hashem's greatness. (Artscroll Rosh Hashanah Machzor Nusach Sefard, page 482, Yom Kippur Machzor)

But while Untaneh Tokef serves as R' Amnon's personal expression of Kedusha:  the Glory of Hashem, our Creator and Creator of All Who Fills the world with His Glory, it seems also to express Hashem's attribute of Mercy in Kingship, all just as does Aleinu.  The first posukim (verses) of Untaneh Tokef rendered to English in Artscroll Machzorim say:

Let us now relate the power of this day's holiness, for it is awesome and frightening.   On it Your Kingship will be exalted;  Your Throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth.  

The Artscroll Machzorim comments on the third posuk:

Hashem's greatness is confirmed when he goes beyond the bounds of judgement by showing mercy.  By definition, judgement is inflexible because it depends on deeds and laws.   By overriding judgement, Hashem shows that there are no limits to His power.

This author therefore reasons that Untaneh Tokef provides a link between our tefillah expressing our recognition of Hashem as our Creator, and our tefillah (prayer)  heralding Hashem's Universal Kingship -- as expressed by Aleinu:

Aleinu: It is our duty to praise the Master of Everything.  To ascribe greatness to the One Who formed Creation.  For He did not make us like the nations of the lands....  We bow, prostrate and acknowledge our thanks to the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He....  (Excerpts from translation of Aleinu rendered by Rabbi Asher Baruch Wegbreit in his sefer, "The Power of Aleinu.")

Rabbi Wegbreit writes in his sefer, "The Power of Aleinu." (pages 35-36, 60):

... The World generally doesn't apply the term "great" where it truly belongs -- with Hashem.   

Their reasoning begins with a flawed... assumption that the Creator of the Unverse Who is lofty enough to create the universe would never "lower Himself" to become involved with the lower world that He made....  They don't feel that the Creator relates to his creations.

We know that the Creator does relate to his creations (Rav Chaim Freidlander, Sifsei Chaim,"Aleinu.")   This recognition makes the Jewish people unique and obligates us "to ascribe greatness to the One Who formed Creation."  (Malbim on Tehillim 34:4) 

There are two reasons why Jews are inspired to humble themselves...  The first is an overwhelming sense gratitude...  Hashem is referred to  as the One who "made us" into a people at Mount Sinai --in order to heap blessing upon us for all eternity and make us unique.  

The second reason we are inspired to humble ourselves is the dread and awe that we feel at having the great privilege of being in the presence and service of Creator of the universe.

If one meets an eminent person... who wields vast power and authority, he feels dwarfed and intimidated.  Even more so,when one meets a powerful king, one is legally required to show respect.  It follows, then, that we can barely comprehend the dread and reverence warranted b a single encounter with the "King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He."

So we can see the expression of the dual themes of Hashem: as Creator of the Universe who relates to his creations, and Hashem: as Merciful King and sovereign over us and to Whom we are privileged and inspired to serve, in both Untaneh Tokef and Aleinu tefillot.

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that our dear brethren Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem.  May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”.

L'Shana Tova!   May You, All of My Brothers, Sisters, be Inscribed and Sealed, for a Year of Life, Health, Simcha, Success and only good things...  Now and Always!