Unatanatokef – Escaping the Shackles of My Hell

In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we Jews are prodded to remember, reflect and return. This past year, and honestly the year prior as well, have been well… Hell. I know, I know, Jews don’t believe in a place commonly known as “Hell”. It is just a bit different for us. For the past year my Hell has been right here on this earth, right here in my life, right hear in my head and right here in my heart. My Hell is a very personal solo experience, unless you are close enough to get in my line of fire like my husband, my kids and a few close friends. The fire that has burned within me from too much pain, too much confusion, trying to control too many things, struggles with relationships, being a working mom who loves her job and a mom who often feels the quiet hum of guilt and worry every single day. All of this has contributed to a tough year to say the least.

During the Jewish High Holidays we recite the Unatanatokef prayer, which asks us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask if we like what we see? Will we live? Will we die? The whole year ahead left open to just those two boxes. Dying or living? Which will we choose? Or, which will be chosen for us by God? Or worse, will we be living yet feel like in some ways we are dead? Looking in this mirror being held up for me to peer into I see two distinct parts staring back at me and at times they are in battle with each other: my fire and my light. Both glow but are distinctly different experiences of self. One is healing with a warm glow and the other can burn white hot. These parts are equally important and both fully me, but maybe not the best me if not in balance.

The fire that has burned in my soul this past year has not been a pleasant one. The warm healing glow has vanished and has been replaced by a burning ember unable to ever fully go out and at moments can flame up and destroy people and relationships. The fire is from many things outside of me and inside of me: the death of my father, the metaphorical death of other members of my family, my marriage being in a low place, my son being bullied and it being dismissed by the school, broken promises by trusted people, manipulation by those who are supposed to protect me, and feeling used, disrespected and discarded. By all accounts a real winner of a year! For my part, I was less than stellar and exhibited personal qualities that helped the fire burn longer, hotter, and inevitably more damaging. This led to my arrogance, my weakness to know when or honestly even how to change course, my desire to “win” over understanding, my vengeful side and my hardened heart.

This fire within me has mostly been my protector, but now she in moments has overtaken me and become a detriment. The light from deep within which so many blessings have come was gone. The smoke from my fire hid my light. The smoke hid me from me. In moments I became the fire: red, hot embers exploding without warning. The fire came from my mouth, my heart and my head. The fire within was my personal Hell. The fire made my life Hell. The fire made me Hell to deal with at times while the smoke made it hard for me to see what was going on around me. The fire and smoke choked me as a wife, mother and friend.

To share these shadowy sides with all of you is a bit scary. It is not easy to let you in on how life isn’t always as it appears on carefully selected pictures for Facebook with funny or poignant tag lines or artsy pics on Instagram. It is scary because some of you who read this may judge me, or maybe you are one of the people who have been scorched by me. Some of you will never see your shadowy side, but will use my words against me to make yourself feel better about yourself without seeing your own smoke, fire and hardened heart.

I am willing to take this risk because I know when I reveal I begin to heal my soul; my words become the cool water that puts out the glowing red embers. I reveal in the hopes that some of you might feel less alone in your white hot pain. I reveal because growing up in my family, and even now, I am reminded how to them my experiences of pain are not seen as valid, nor appropriate, or sadly of no consequence to some even now. I reveal to remind myself that my feelings, even the dark shadowy ones, deeply matter. They are real and they are mine, even though unattractive and far from perfection. I reveal to encourage others to share their confusion and pain in the hope of change and to shatter the bonds of shame and soothe the pain of loss.

Unatanatokef. Who shall live? Who shall die? May all of us choose life and break out of the self-imposed shackles of our own Hell, gently pour ourselves out to others to extinguish the fire in the hope of a year that is filled with the warm light of love, contentment and sweetly painful honest reflection.

2,070 Responses to “Unatanatokef – Escaping the Shackles of My Hell”

  1. Stacy says:


  2. Lizzie says:

    Beautiful Michelle. Hug.

  3. Lorenza says:

    Amen, Michelle Golland!

    You are speaking for all of us who know you very well, who know your kindness, your celebration of life, family and friendship as well, forgiving ourselves and others, because each of us make a part of this world stuck in turmoil, and in a snowball of worries. We all have a kind of hell that is built by our fellows who does not respect the life of others, the ones who claim to have the right to say, do or even kill just because they can’t deal with their own imperfection. Jelousy, envy, egocentrism, mental illnes and the ability or habit of doing things to harm other people, those individuals remind us that life is so short to be near them. Let’s just ignore them and open our path to the Light of God who if we call Him will guide us to forgiveness, compassion, understanding that many people don’t have any idea of the pain in the heart, pain in the stomach and pain in the brain when hurting, bombing, killing, or using bulling words…or even chemical weaponds… Those people don’t enjoy Life and the healing power of even watching a child grow from babyhood to adulthood or even observe a bird nest full with chicks hungry opening mouth for their parents to feed them. Those people may never feel Love in their heart, and that is a great punish.
    You are brave, as a mother, a spouse, a a professional. I have seen you working hard for Asher and Tova’s school, almost everyweek you did something to collect money, be there for any event for free, how could some parents not see that and better guide those bully offprings! They may not even realize that those early bulling behaviors can turn even against their parents someday. Some people have fun offending others with less capabilities or with physical disadvantage, and they are cruel. If they are not disciplined, they may become criminals in their late teenagehood or even during their adulthood. I have beeing bullied too for being overwheight, and from people I go hiking often, but I ignore them supperficially although inside of me I am sad. You just have to put your head up and said: They are not better than me, why should I feel less?
    We know our own soul and that’s what is counts to God. Let’s be thankful for what we have and not cry for what people think we have, they don’t see our Soul, God does!
    Amen, Michelle Golland, and God bless you and your beautiful family! Love

  4. Bambi says:

    I am sorry for your pain, grateful for your friendship, and appreciate your courage to “reveal” yourself fully.

  5. Dear Michelle,
    A courageous statement. I wonder if you’ve read Emily Dickinson. I think she can be a great support in a struggle I know you’ll come through. My own experience is that we must go into these things without reserve or guarantees in order to plumb the crative depths waiting in us. That sounds like fancy language and I apologize, but the experience has been the key to my own creative rhythm. best, mac

  6. Mimi McCracken says:

    Bravo Michelle,
    You are a very courageous person. Your words brought tears to my eyes. Your authenticity in the light of the hard times will serve you. Many of us don’t reflect and we push back these feelings. I, too, despite living in the most beautiful city in the world, Paris, have had a very trying year. Relationships that I thought were one thing yet were not…It has been a long time since I last saw you and don’t know if you remember me from our sons going to pre school at Temple Israel. That doesn’t matter…what does matter is that by being honest about our sadness, madness, etc. we are opening the gateway for other people to feel…Thank you for your words…Love, Mimi

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