Sunday, September 24, 2006

Who Shall Live

The Groovy Synagogue I go to now has a tradition of inviting lay congregants to give the sermon on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This time last year a woman gave a speech that has stayed with me ever since.

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.

12 Comments:

Anonymous ppolarbear said...

Oh my goodness. This is just beautiful.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

What PPB said. This is a knock-out post -- and I would think so even if it were not such a pointed and telling answer to my post.

I wish I was better about following the sound rather than the sense of the prayers. When we're observing home-based holidays, I find it easier to float along with the prayers-of-my-ancestors thing (I laughed out loud, by the way), but something about saying the prayers in a congregational setting unleashes my inner adolescent like nothing else.

I think I have a lot of maturing to do, still, in relation to my Judaism. But I don't yet have the inclination to spend the time doing it.

3:22 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Thanks, both of you. That kind of praise from you two means a *lot*.

Phantom--I don't think it's better at all to just float along on the sound of the prayers rather than challenging their meaning, and I'm really sorry if it came off that way! Actually, I was humbled by the way you--like my current shul's rabbi--take the sense of the prayers seriously enough to take issue with them. (I often feel like I'm taking the good girl's easy way out by doing what I do; like writing a paper the way it's assigned, agreeing with the teacher's questionable point of view, and getting an A on the strength of facile writing, rather than challenging the premise and having to take the trouble to prove my/your/one's own point.)

And--your comments section is probably the place for this, but I'm writing it here already so what the hey--Mr. Blue's little cousin's anguished comment in your post, about his aunt being good, just about broke my heart. It's the big, big, question for everyone who engages with organized religion in any way, isn't it. I mean, that woman who died at the Fed was good too, probably just as good as the woman who had the chance to live and to save people.

So...no good answers.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Jess said...

That is lovely, thank you for sharing that one.

My rabbi takes a lot of issue with the traditional parsha for Rosh Hashanah, the part about Abraham blindly following G-d's instruction to sacrifice Issac and how then Abraham just as blindly does not follow through with it after Adonai commands that he stop. This year my rabbi gave a sermon about how prehaps Abraham heard both G-Ds commands at the same time.

He counseled us not to be an extreemist, not to use faith as an excuse for spouting hatred or to commit acts of violence but to only hear the call for G-D's command for mercy and love. It was a very moving speach. My favorite part was when he said something to the effect of "If I'm wrong in beliving what I believe then so be it, I'd rather suffer in hell with Gandi then enjoy heaven alongside Fred Phelps and other bigots"

6:25 PM  
Blogger liz said...

Beautiful post and good comments, too.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

Yes, beautiful. (Beautiful enough to bring this sporadic lurker out of the woodwork :->)

10:00 AM  
Blogger Dale said...

Yes, beautiful. (Beautiful enough to bring this sporadic lurker out of the woodwork :->)

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Genevieve said...

Wonderful post, elsewhere. Thank you.

8:05 PM  
Blogger saz said...

Your mom sent me over here and I'm glad she did. This is a very moving and beautiful post. Thank you!

12:55 AM  
Anonymous Yael said...

Wow. Thank you for sharing this and for passing along the transformation. Wow.

12:38 AM  
Anonymous badgermama said...

Yay, amazing!

I loved reading this.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

This:

"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!"

made me laugh out loud. For kind of a long time, actually. So, so true.

Thanks so much for inviting me over here.

9:36 PM  

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