Who by strength? Not who by fire . .

To Be Sealed in the Book of LIfe, Wellbeing, and Happiness
A New Unetaneh Tokef for Rosh Hashanah

Leonard Cohen’s, “Who By Fire,” was based on a traditional prayer said on the Jewish New Year called, Unetaneh Tokef. We sing both versions at our synagogue. “And who by water, and who by fire? And who in her lonely slip and who by barbiturate? Why by brave ascent and who by accident, and who shall I say is calling?” The lyrics are both beautiful and haunting.

Cohen took the theme from notion that on the High Holy Days, Jews pray to be sealed into the Book of Life. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die?” It’s an important yearly reminder of the precious nature of life. And for those interested in Positive Judaism, Unetaneh Tokef is also a call to thriving and flourishing.

One way to increase wellbeing and happiness is activate your unique character strengths in your daily life. Studies have shown that people who know their character strengths and draw upon them to overcome challenges every day, scale higher in wellbeing and happiness. Do you know your signature strengths?* It’s been proven that people who invest in their strength areas are physically healthier, have less stress, have better relationships, and are accomplishing their goals more readily than those who dwell in their weaknesses and negativity.

Jewish wisdom teaches, “choose life so that you may live.” If the life you live is a choice, than imagining “who shall live and who shall die” is also a choice, to some degree. And who doesn’t want more happiness in their life? And more positivity in the world?

Choose to learn, develop, and activate your character strengths as a step this year towards increasing the happiness in your life. Become a student of wellbeing so that no matter what comes, water or fire, you’ll be prepared to “choose life so that you may live,” and live well.

So, this year, in addition to reciting the traditional and Leonard Cohen versions of Unetaneh Tokef in our synagogue, we’re also going to be reciting my new version rooted in the science of wellbeing and the 24 widely accepted character strengths. Feel free to share it with your circles.

“Who by Strength?”

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Who shall thrive and who shall survive?

Who by creativity and who by curiosity,

Who by judgement and who by honesty,

Who by bravery and who by zest,

Who by perspective and who by perseverance,

And who shall we say are thriving?

Who by a love for learning and who by love,

Who by hope and who by humor,

Who by kindness and who by social intelligence,

Who by leadership and who by teamwork,

And who shall we say are thriving?

Who by fairness and who by forgiveness,

Who by humility and who by gratitude,

Who by care and who by discipline,

Who by the appreciation of beauty and who by spirituality,

And who shall we say are thriving?


May the year ahead bring new levels of positivity in your life and may we all be sealed in the Book of Life, Wellbeing, and Happiness.

Happy New Year,

Rabbi Darren Levine, D.Min


*Viacharacter.org offers a free online character strengths survey