Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who by fire and who by water

The prayer which, more than any other, evokes the tenor—and terror—of these High Holy Days is the medieval poem known as U’netaneh Tokef. Traditionally attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, it proclaims the awesome power of this season, in which God, as Judge and Arbiter, opens the book of our days and decrees our destinies: “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by strangling and who by stoning. . . who shall be secure, and who shall be driven. . .” The language moves us by its ferocity; this is our tradition’s version of fire and brimstone.

And then comes the kicker: “U-teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma-avirin et ro-ah ha-g’zerah—But repentance, prayer and charity temper the severity of the decree.”

What does this mean? Surely Rabbi Amnon, a pious sage who died a martyr, knew that none of these things change the reality of the decree one iota. We will all suffer, and we will all die, no matter how much we repent, pray, and give tzedakah. Indeed, some who do these things in abundance will suffer greatly and die young, while others who are unrepentant, misanthropic, and wouldn’t set foot in a synagogue may nonetheless live long lives in relative comfort.

But as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, while the choices that we make cannot change the decree of death and suffering, they can lessen their sting. As he puts it, “Repentance, prayer and donating do not change the facts of life – our disbursement of blessings and curses will continue to bear little relation to our moral virtue, whether or not we pray, repent, or donate. But a heart habitually opened by repentance, prayer, and donating will cross through life’s inescapable misfortunes somewhat more gently. Our road will still be bumpy, but we’ll have better shock absorbers.”

These Days of Awe remind us how fragile we are, how much of life will always be out of our control. Yet even in the worst of circumstances, we retain the power to choose how we react to our lot. May this season help us to better respond to adversity with reflection, spiritual strength, and giving hearts.

For a powerful contemporary Israeli musical setting of this classic piece, see

Questions to consider:
1. This fall, we will examine this prayer in more detail during our Yom Kippur study session. For now, reflect on the relationship between our circumstances and the choices that we make.
2. What do you make of the metaphor of God as Judge and Arbiter? Does this fit with your ideas/experiences of the Divine? What message might it impart in this season?
3. After noting that God opens the book of our days and decrees our fate, the text also says that this book “bears the signature of every human being.”
Given that this is a signature, we, not God, are doing the writing. What does this imply?

Friday, August 26, 2011

When we stand before the open ark and recite Avinu Malkeinu on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we may experience high drama. This is one of the most ancient prayers of the high holy day liturgy. A talmudic legend attributes the refrain—Our Source, Our Sovereign. . . have mercy on us—to Rabbi Akiba, who offered it as a plea for rain in time of drought (Taanit 25b). Over the years, many verses have accumulated; the exact number and wording differs according to the rite and locale (German Ashkenazi, Polish, Italian, Sephardi, etc.)

Why has Avinu Malkeinu become such an important part of the Days of Awe, and what does it suggest about our relationship with the Divine? While the first word, Avinu, is often translated as “our Father,” the root, av can also mean source or foundation (as in avot melachah, the sources of what defines “work” on Shabbat). This meaning is implicit in the very nature of the term av, which is literally the first word in the Hebrew language (the first letter, aleph, followed by the second, bet). So when we refer to God as Avinu, we recognize the Holy One as our founder, our source, the stuff from which all of life is, as it were, made. By contrast, when we call God Malkeinu, our Sovereign, we point to a transcendent, awe-inspiring Other, beyond ourselves. When we recite Avinu Malkeinu, then, we paradoxically praise the Divine who is both within and beyond us, an intimate loving source of parental comfort and nurture, and a commanding external call to ethics and observance.

Each of us experiences the sacred differently. For some, holiness comes primarily through intimacy, through the still, small voice that whispers within us, and the ties that bind us to the people, creatures, and places that we love. Others find holiness in moments of fear and trembling, when we feel our cosmic insignificance against the backdrop of the vastness of God’s universe. Avinu Malkeinu affirms both of approaches to the divine. God is both wholly Other—and entirely present within us. During these Days of Awe, may we each find the Divine Presence when and where we need Her.

As we begin the new month of Elul, and with it our preparations for the fall holy days, think about where and when you most experience God/holiness. Then consider: how might that experience of the sacred inspire you to make teshuvah, to become a better person in the coming year?

To hear a contemporary jam-band rendition of Avinu Malkeinu by Phish, go to
and skip to around the 4:00 minute mark.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Preparing for the Days of Awe (part 1)

Who Wrote the Book of Life?

There are quite a few significant prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems) created in their entirety for the Days of Awe. Future columns in this series will focus on several of these: Avinu Malkeinu, Unetaneh Tokef ("who shall live and who shall die”), the Yom Kippur confession of sin, Rosh Hashanah shofar service, and Kol Nidre.

Yet most of the High Holy Day liturgy is comprised of the same prayers that we recite regularly, on Shabbat and weekdays. What, then, makes these familiar liturgical pieces unique for the season? Two things: a) special musical settings; b) short insertions and substitutions emphasizing God's sovereignty, a theme of these Days of Awe. Dan Stern will offer a guest column here about the former; I would like to share a few thoughts on the latter.

The best known of these High Holy Day additions is inserted into Avot and Imahot, the opening of the Amidah, which recognizes God as the sustainer and support of our patriarchs and matriarchs. During this season, we interrupt our flowing words of praise with a plea: "Zochreinu l'chayyim, melech chafetz ba-chayyim, v'chotveinu b'sefer ha-chayyim l'ma-anchah Elohim chayyim--Remember us for life, O Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in your Book of Life, for Your sake, O God of life." [for a great musical setting of Zochreinu, look here:
What are the origins of this passage, and what might it teach us?

The theme is derived from a statement in the Talmud suggesting that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God judges each of us, writing the righteous into the Book of Life, and the wicked into a corresponding Book of Death. Our version of the teaching here emphasizes God's--and our--strong yearning and predilection for life: we pray to a "God of life" who "delights in life" and in so doing, offer our own affirmation of life's essential blessing.

Still, the image is challenging, even as a metaphor (surely there are no real, literal books here). Experience teaches that there is little--or no--connection between our morality and our mortality. In the coming year, many good people will die and bad people will not only live but prosper. What, then, does this image of the books offer us?

I find that this metaphor calls us to a spiritual accounting, to acknowledge and take responsibility for our choices. As Gates of Repentance puts it: "Every word, every act inscribes itself in the book of life. Freely we choose, and what we have chosen to become stands in judgment over what we may yet hope to be." Or, in the words of the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Bachya ibn Pakuda, "Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered."

As we approach our most sacred season, may we use our days to bring healing, increase blessing, seek forgiveness, work for justice, and deepen our Jewish connections within ourselves and with our community.

Questions to consider:

1. What have you done this year to write yourself into the Book of Life? What deeds and choices are you most proud of?

2. What choices did you make that were not life-affirming, for you and/or for others? How can you change course in these matters over the coming weeks?

3. How, during the frenetic pace of our daily lives, can we step back and reflect on the notion that our days are scrolls and what we write in them--at every moment and with every act--is of utmost significance?