SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – We often refer to the High Holidays as the Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim. These last weeks have evoked in us a palpable sense of awe, as we reflect on the power of nature – creative and destructive in the same moment, wreaking havoc with human structures, and even with human lives.
The hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, the recent massive earthquake in Mexico, manifestations of a natural world that causes us to reflect on the uncertainty of human life and fate. Our hearts go out to all who have been touched by these disasters.
As we gather in our synagogues this High Holiday season, we will offer prayers for healing and strength for those who face the storms and other manifestations of nature and human cruelty and weakness.
Another prayer that may speak to us as we confront these momentous events is the Unetaneh Tokef. This prayer expresses in a most poignant way the essentially unknowable future that each of us faces, “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire, and who by water …” asks the ancient poet.
The late Leonard Cohen was inspired to write his own version of the ancient prayer:
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? ….
Cohen asks: “Who shall I say is calling?” A traditional answer would be to say that God is calling – calling on each of us to respond to the choice put before us in the Torah – to choose life and blessing, to eschew death and curses.
During the Days of Awe, and in the season of Teshuvah, we open ourselves to a deeper awareness and ask serious questions, to move us to reflect on our lives and those things that we can change. The Unetaneh Tokef tells us that the decree of our future and fate has been written – but not yet delivered. Yet, Tzedakah, Tefillah, and Teshuvah – Charity, Prayer, and Repentance – will avert the evil decree.
We should not take this ancient poem literally, yet many aspects of it ring true. If we are charitable, we will bring comfort to the fallen and healing to the sick, alleviating the sad consequences of natural accident and circumstance. If we are prayerful we will open our hearts to know that which is most worthy in our hearts and reconnect ourselves to sustaining communities and uplifting eternal values. If we engage in Teshuvah – we will set our moral GPS back to the right path – the path of hope, the path of blessing, the path of life.
May we turn ourselves around to the right path as we usher in 5778.
Wishing all our community a New Year of Blessing, Health, Recommitment, and Reconnection!
Rabbi David Kudan is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.