Monday, September 15, 2008

Who By Fire? Elul Full Moon

I have been thinking a great deal about how fast the time of my life is passing lately.
Much of the reflection has to do with my kids growing up
and the fact that the big five-oh is coming up in a few years.
Did I say coming up?
It feels like it is racing at me with all the speed and grace of an oncoming train.

And we are now beginning the third week of Elul.
The moon is full and Rosh Hashanah is only two weeks away.
And when I go to synagogue to observe the Yom ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance,
I will do so remembering so many people near to my own age who will not be there ever again, to mark the passing of the year, the birthday of the world, and the blowing of the Shofar in the holy assembly.

During this month of Turning and Returning, Jews meditate on the metaphor of the Book of Life. The number of each person's days is inscribed in the book of life, we say, and we recall that life is finite and precious. Thus the importance of making of our lives something wonderful, for the fact that we are mortal makes what we choose and what we do matter.

And thoughts on our lives and the number of our days inevitably also brings us face to face with two realities. One is that we often fall short of the greatness to which we are summoned. We walk, as one poet put it, "sightless among miracles," especially the miracles of our own lives and of those we love.
The other realization is that life is fragile and short.

And so on Rosh Hashannah, as we gather together to pray for a year of prosperity and a year of abundance, and a year of peace, we also confront our own mortality as we listen Un' taneh tokef:

"Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day...
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not,
Who shall die by fire, and who by water..."

I used to chafe against this judgement, that the innocent suffer no less than the guilty, and I still feel the twist of the Damoclean sword at the last line:

"...but repentance, prayer and righteousness temper judgment's severe decree."

Silently, I cry out still in protest at the unfairness of life; that even the most innocent and the most righteous often suffer death by holocaust, their lives cut off with cruel unfairness; and their tormentors die of old age, in bed.

But the author of these words, Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, who died by fire when the Crusaders annihilated the Jews of the Rhineland, surely did not mean that he and his people died because they had not practiced repentance, prayer and righteousness. These were people who lived on the knife-edge of oppression. And they lived well and creatively. No, the judgment he is talking about is the fragility of life. These things--repentance (in Hebrew, the act of turning again toward the good), prayer (in Hebrew, standing in judgment of one's self before what is True and Just), and righteousness (weighing choices by values and acting accordingly)--cannot forever avert death. That is our nature.

But our understanding and knowledge of our mortality is what makes each choice we make important; it is the foundation of our existence as moral beings. Therefore, to live our lives in goodness, weighing our decisions truly, and acting justly; all so that we live lives of purpose, can temper the severe decree of mortality. We stand, as long as we live, on who we are in the profound sense.

And yet again this year, I find my understanding of the Un'tane Tokef enhanced by Leonard Cohen's interpretation, here accompanied by the amazing Sonny Rollins on saxophone.

And Who, Who shall I say is calling?

"See, I set before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil . . .
Choose life, that you and your children may live." (Parashat Nitzavim)

This is how we become real human beings: that we choose between goodness and life or evil and death; that we are aware of the gravity of the choices we are making in full knowledge that each person has this responsibility and the liberty to choose.

NOTE: I posted this entry first on September 14 in the evening. Today, I added a picture and edited for clarity and completeness of thought, so I am reposting to the top of my blog.

1 comment:

Melora said...

Beautiful post.
I hope you are over your sinus infection. Can't say I'm looking forward to fifty either, but it sure looks a lot less scary than it did when I was in my thirties (or, even more, my twenties!). Now it is 60 that seems the major milestone!