Who Shall Live
She spoke about a prayer called the Unetanneh Tokef, that's a central part of the liturgy during these Days of Awe. It starts "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die; who by fire and who by water; who by hunger and who by wild beasts..." and on and on like that. It concludes: "But tshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) will avert the stern decree." (For one English translation of the whole prayer, click here.)
Our own rabbi, who is not the most doctrinaire Jew in the world, had actually declined to say this prayer at Rosh Hashanah services last year, saying he had thought and prayed about it and just found the sentiment too cruel, too mean-spirited. Unlike Phantom (who has excellent reasons) I have no personal beef with self-flagellation holidays, and I missed it. The prayer ends with a beautiful, yearning, haunting melody, and I get something out of singing it. (I mean, I don't usually pay too much attention to the literal meaning of the Hebrew prayers anyway; I just say them along with an inner simultaneous translation/interpretation that goes something like: "These are the prayers of my ancestors, which they've said for hundreds of years. They're a thread connecting me to my whole life and the lives of my parents' parents' parents and to Jews all over the world who are saying them right now. And here comes that pretty musical part again...mumble mumble part I don't understand and never caught onto how to say, I really should learn how to truly read the Hebrew sometime and not just stumble along with the transliteration...now sing out! Sounds good! Yep! All of us together!")
The woman who gave the sermon last year started by acknowledging the depth of the Rabbi's feelings about the Unetanneh Tokef, about "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die." Then she spoke about how she'd been watching and reading the then-recent coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and she'd come to a different interpretation of the prayer.
What if, she said, this prayer wasn't threatening punishment from above, but merely speaking of life as it's lived on Earth? What if the prayer is reminding us of this: that our actions, our choices, reverberate into the world, deciding our fates and the fates of others, even unto life or death, by flood or by fire, by hunger or by thirst. That we are all accountable.
She spoke about the political ramifications, about what our leaders and we as a country can do-- and didn't do. She also spoke of courage and compassion as skills that can be practiced, prepared; how our actions prepare us for further action, and for heroism when and if it's needed. (the full text of her sermon is here.)
I listened with my whole mind and heart. I wouldn't have been surprised if my mouth had been hanging open. In the course of ten minutes or so, my understanding of that prayer, and of what traditional prayer and even religion can mean, was turned inside out. This was far, far beyond my own dissociative grooving on the sound alone, and from the soothing, earthy-crunchy, softened "translations" I've seen in progressive prayerbooks. This was taking that prayer, so old-world and cruel and arbitrary on its surface, and grabbing it by the throat and shaking out the radical meaning at the core of it. I was stunned, at what she was saying and that such a thing was possible. It's not too much to say that I was transformed.
Two months ago a man with a gun attacked a Jewish organization in Seattle. He forced his way in past the buzzers and security and shot several people before he gave himself up. (This article covers the events pretty well.)
Nothing like this had ever happened in Seattle before, not on this scale against a Jewish target. It made front-page news all over the region, and in Jewish communities all over the world. I won't say everyone around here was shaken, because I don't know everyone, but...people were shaken. I've lived in this city for sixteen years, and I've belonged to a few synagogues, and, well, I was shaken. I'd been in that organization's offices, a few years ago , to plan a book-related event. I could picture it, and I knew or knew of more than one of the victims. The idea of security guards outside synagogues and JCCs didn't seem so paranoid, all of a sudden.
Our shul doesn't usually go in for heavy security, but we had guards at Rosh Hashanah services this weekend. The shooting was mentioned more than once in the course of the morning service yesterday. Then, near the end of the service, the rabbi called one congregant up for the honor of blessing the Torah. Almost everyone there, I think, recognized her name. She was the woman at the office who, five months pregnant, had shielded her abdomen with her arm when the gunman shot at her, and had then crawled to her desk, called 911 (despite the attacker's warning that he'd kill anyone who phoned the police), and persuaded him to talk to the operator, after which he stopped shooting and surrendered himself. One of the shooting victims died; the others lived.
I'd seen her earlier, a woman with a brace on her wrist, but hadn't recognized her, even though I knew the story and knew she was a member of this synagogue. She's been called a hero and been on TV and given interviews, but right then she just looked tired, a tired pregnant woman with an injured hand. Her friend and co-worker was killed this summer; her other co-workers were injured. She has a baby coming in a couple of months. She said the blessing, then turned to walk back to her seat.
It wasn't random, that she'd had the presence of mind to call 911, to convince the shooter to come to the phone. She has a master's degree in crisis intervention. She'd worked for an aid organization before this job. She'd prepared, without knowing it. And she was able to act.
I wanted to stand for her, as she passed in front of our row of pews. I didn't quite have the nerve to start it, wasn't sure if she'd really want even more attention. But it was a quiet, awkward moment, just sitting and watching; I wished afterwards that we'd done something, made some kind of communal gesture.
But now that I think of it, maybe we did.
This Rosh Hashanah, our Rabbi led the Unetanneh Tokef.