The U-netaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite each day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, vividly and hauntingly describes the fear that grips the heavens on the Day of Judgment. It speaks of the sounding of the heavenly shofar, announcing the moment when the Almighty once again ascends to the throne and sits to judge the earth. And at that moment, as this prayer describes, the angels run about frantically, in trepidation, wailing, “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, when a reckoning is made of the Heavenly Hosts in judgment.”
A number of writers addressed the question of how to explain the fear which the heavenly angels are depicted as experiencing. Does God indeed judge the angels on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Are the angels ever judged? Angels are generally understood as creatures without free will, God’s agents who faithfully, and even robotically, fulfill God’s command without any hesitation or ambivalence, without any inclination or desire to do otherwise. How can they be judged if they are incapable of wrongdoing? And if they are judged, what would they need to fear?
Rav Tzvi Hirsch Ferber, in his Sefer Ha-moadim (p. 46), suggests explaining this passage as referring to the notion of heavenly angels serving as our advocates before the Heavenly Tribunal. Chazal speak of angels that arise as a result of our prayers and good deeds and plead our case, as it were, as we stand trial. The image depicted in U-netaneh Tokef of the heavenly angels gripped with fear at the time of judgment might therefore refer to the fact that even our staunchest “supporters” and “advocates” fear the outcome of this tribunal. The good deeds we’ve performed are deficient and few in number, and thus hardly give us cause for confidence in a positive outcome, and so they “tremble” as the judgment looms. According to this explanation, the description of the panic in the heavens is, in truth, a chilling description of the panic that ought to grip us here on earth. As we stand trial on the Day of Judgment, we come to the realization that even our own “attorneys” are frightened. Recognizing what’s at stake, we look high and low hoping that we have sources of merit to “advocate” on our behalf, that might provide us with a glimmer of hope and optimism. But when we look at ourselves with brutal honesty, we realize that these sources of merit are woefully insufficient, leaving our “angels” – and, therefore, us – in a state of dread of panic.
Of course, the U-netaneh Tokef prayer ends on a far more joyful and comforting note, as we loudly exclaim, “But repentance, prayer and charity eliminate the harsh decree.” Rosh Hashanah is a complex day when we experience both the fear and dread of judgment, as well as the exhilaration of knowing that God welcomes our repentance with love and open arms. And so the panic of U-netaneh Tokef gives way to the comfort of “teshuva, tefila, tzedaka,” of God’s boundless mercy and compassion which we can always access through genuine and heartfelt teshuva.