We play out a sacred drama about life and death on the High Holidays. Yes, it’s about the creation of the world & apples and honey & family dinners. And it’s about so much more. There is deep wisdom in the sacred rituals we enact on these holy days. But they are often hidden.
If you know where to look, and pay close attention, this wisdom can truly carry you through the year.
The centerpiece of all the prayer services at this time of year is a prayer that if you are at a certain age, makes you tremble at the truth of what you are about to recite. The text even inspired the late Leonard Cohen to write the penetrating song Who By Fire.”*
The prayer, Unetaneh Tokef imagines that we are set before a holy court. Our deeds of the past year are judged and counted and recorded (the Jewish version of ‘Santa knows if you’ve been naughty or nice…”)
The imagery invoked is powerful: we are sheep passing under the staff of the great Shepherd, who determines our destiny for the upcoming year.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
And on Yom Kippur it is decided.
How many shall pass on and how many shall be created,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who when their time comes and who before or after their time,
Who by fire and who by water,
Who by the sword and who by wild beasts,
Who by famine and who by drought,
Who by earthquake and who by epidemic,
Who by strangling and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who can never be still,
Who shall be serene and who torn apart,
Who shall be at ease and who afflicted,
Who shall be impoverished and who enriched,
Who shall be brought low and who raised high.
But teshuvah, prayer and charitable acts avert the severity of the decree.**
As you get older, you start realizing that words you may have recited by rote as a child are actually true – you sit in the congregation and look around: in the past year, this one’s child got very sick, that one’s home was burned up by a fire, this one’s husband died out of nowhere at too young an age, and that one lost their life savings in a day…
Leonard Cohen sings:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
It hits you in the gut: this is real. We are truly not in charge. We do not know what is around the corner.
In the face of this terror, you realize that you have to figure out how you are going to live with this truth.
But wait – there’s good news: this same prayer offers us a nechemta (a comfort) and actually, the ONLY way you can walk through the world when bad things happen.
At the end of the list of all the horrible things that can happen in a year, the prayer declares:
“But teshuvah (return, repentance), prayer (reaching in & out) and charitable acts will “avert” (ma’avirin) the severity of the decree.
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
Meaning – if you do all these three actions, you can avoid the tragedies that could befall you this year (sign me up, right?)
However, this is not acceptable either, because this is equally not true! Even if you do all the right things, you can still get hit with a flood that destroys your house in a hurricane.
Listen – there is an issue with the Hebrew translation – and it is here that we get the gift that can carry us through the year.
The Hebrew (ma’arivin מַעֲבִירִין) is translated often as “avert the decree.” Other prayerbooks translate it as “deflect the severity of the decree.” Some translations even say “annul or cancel the decree.” (When you are in services this year, notice how your prayerbook translates and write me.)
Rabbi Harold Schulweis (of blessed memory) taught that the root of the word ma’arivin means to “cross over” or to navigate the boundaries. In fact, the word “Hebrews” comes from that same root. Hebrews are “ones who cross over.”
NOW it makes sense: Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedekah help us navigate the rough waters of whatever bad happens in our life.
Our power is in our response to what happens.
Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust says it this way: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Horrible things happen, yes. However when they DO, we have a choice in how to respond.
When we respond with 1) taking responsibility (teshuvah) and 2) prayer & meditation (get silent and still – tefillah) and 3) acts of loving kindness for others (tzedekah)— THIS is what helps us ride the waves of life.
And my friends, I can say with every cell of my body that this is true. The only way to live life is awake and grateful for the gift and responding with thoughtfulness to whatever is in front of you.
Shana Tova to all – May you have a happy and healthy new year.
*Leonard Cohen’s, Who by Fire can be seen here: https://youtu.be/cuUgTxgoyaI
**(Rabbi Richard Levy’s translation from his machzor Wings of Awe.)
Hineni, our Jewish Mindfulness webinar online-based community begins the new year on September 26. Our topic will be “Forgiveness.” In fact, our October theme is “Expanding the Boundaries of God-Talk” where we really “blow wide open” the whole idea of God. For more info, check out our website: https://www.ravjill.com/hineni/
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