Unetanah Tokef: When a Crisis Hits, Learning the Meaning of True Resilience


A rabbi uses a famous prayer to analyze her response to her son's continuing struggle with cancer.

Unetanah Tokef: Who shall live and who shall die?

Sometimes life smacks you down. And smacks you down again.

When my son, who is now 22, achieved remission from a rare sarcoma last summer and went back to college, I stood before my congregation and celebrated his survival. We had endured a brutal year of treatment, including a multitude of side effects. We celebrated his return to school, the miracle of healing and the possibility of moving forward after trauma.

Unetanah Tokef: Who shall burn with passion or drown in sorrow?

When he relapsed in April, just nine months after finishing chemo, it was I who went into a tailspin: More cancer?!? I’m not ready! I haven’t recovered yet. I haven’t taken care of myself enough yet, to restore my own health and strength to what they once were.

It was then that I began to cry the tears that had been unwept,  tears that finally couldn’t wait until later. And the demons I had kept at bay suddenly leapt out at me: loneliness, abandonment, death. I went into despair, became filled with meaningless, hopeless despair. Everything I had staved off last year, came crashing down on me this time around.

Who shall live and who shall die?

And then it hit me: I am going to have to meet this challenge differently than before. I am going to need to take care of myself as I go through it, not put off my self-care until it’s all safely behind me. It may never be behind me!

I am going to have to learn to tread water in the midst of a swirling ocean, learn to find safety in the midst of the storm. Like a fighter jet, I must learn somehow to refuel during the flight.
Who is pierced by remorse, who devoured by loneliness?

So I cut my hair and joined the gym and had lunch with friends and cleaned off my desk. I kept writing my book, finished teaching my classes and shifted gears to take a much, much, much closer-to-home summer vacation than what I had been planning.

I took a deep breath. And another.

This is what I know now: Resilience doesn’t just happen. Resilience requires thoughtful action. When the crisis hits, we can’t just feel and we can’t just act. Resilience grows in the spaces between overwhelming emotion and unexamined busyness. Oscillating between feeling and action, we fine tune our responses in the place of breath, the space of reflection. Feel. Act. Breathe … Adjust. Repeat.

Who shall starve for love, who will thirst for justice?

I began to try to find a balance between grim perseverance and laughter with loved ones. Between focused problem-solving and dropping down on the rug to play taxis with my 11-year-old.

Resilience is the ability to say yes to life even when death’s jaws are gnawing hungrily outside your door. It is the path through the crisis, not the detour. Not plowing through, hastily, without looking to the left or to the right, but stopping to notice the startlingly blue sky, the hawks circling overhead.

Who shall quake with fear? Who will be plagued by doubt? Who will be strangled by attachments? Who will keep them­selves too stoned to care?

We can so easily die while yet drawing breath, falling victim to fear, shrinking into our most humorless selves. Life’s disappointments, challenges and horrors can tear us down and paralyze us. We suffer an untimely death within, even as all the world thinks we are, somehow, still breathing. 

Or we can choose to live as long as we are still alive: to follow our passions, contribute to the world and learn how to love a little better each day. My son has been a model of resilience. Still on chemo, he finished his spring coursework over the summer and, just this week, I moved him into his senior dorm. He will stay on chemo and attend classes. We will patch together a food plan he can eat on his new, highly restricted diet, and he will go to New York once a week for infusions. But he will, God willing, graduate next June, achieving a dream.

How will you say yes to life when you are drowning? How will you awaken to truth when the earth quakes?

Unetanah Tokef: Who shall have peace and tranquility? Who shall live safely?

Those who create emotional safety for themselves and for others. Who shall be rich? Those who choose a life rich in commitment. Who shall be raised up? Through raising up each other, we ourselves will be lifted ever higher!

Rabbi Margot Stein teaches liturgy at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and works with special needs B’nai Mitzvah students and their families.  This piece was adapted from remarks on Rosh Hashanah at Mishkan Shalom. She can be reached at [email protected] earthlink.net.


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