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Monday, October 03, 2005

Rosh Hashana Thoughts

I just got an automated call from my shul that a member's father passed away and the funeral is today. That, coupled with the death of a young father that many in my community had a connection to, has left me pondering mortality, especially on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the yearly Day of Judgement. I wonder about the pain the family members must go through when a holiday falls so soon after their loss, especially when reading the words of Unetaneh Tokef, a beautiful poem which concerns the yearly judgement. A passage from the prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by sword and who by wild beast,

Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who by strangulation and who by stoning,

Who shall have rest and who shall wander,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

I know that we are supposed to interpret this poem metaphorically, and not ascribe every death to that individual's lack of righteousness. That kind of theodicy has no real place in Jewish thought, and those who have tried it in the wake of recent natural disasters have gotten skewered. But it must be very difiicult to read the words, knowing that one's near and dear had been "inscribed" the year before for death. I remember feeling the same way four years ago, when Rosh Hashana fell so soon after 9/11. I remember saying this tefilla, wondering why some had been smitten and others, like my husband (Baruch Hashem) had been spared.

Which makes me prefer another interpretation of this poem. Instead of taking it to mean that one's level of righteousness directly relates to one's length of days - which we know conflicts with most teachings on the subject, I prefer to use the meaning that I heard in a Shabbat Shuva lecture, many years ago. The poem is reminding us of the preciousness of life, and how important it is to appreciate every single day we have on this earth. One of the best ways to do that is to be reminded of our mortality, whether by actual events that take place, as is the case in my community this week, and was the case for so many the year of 9/11, or by the words of this prayer. Which reminds me of an anomymous piece I have gotten forwarded by various friends many times in the past few years:

To realize the value of one year

Ask a student who has failed his final exam.

To realize the value of one month

Ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby.

To realize the value of one week

Ask an editor of a weekly newspaper.

To realize the value of one day

Ask a daily wage laborer who has ten kids to feed.

To realize the value of one hour

Ask a couple waiting for the wedding ceremony.

To realize the value of one minute

Ask a person who has missed the train.

To realize the value of one second

Ask a person who has survived an accident.

To realize the value of one millisecond

Ask the person who has won a silver medal in the Olympics.

Use every moment wisely, it is a divine gift.

Wishing all a Shana Tovah U'Metukah. A year of health, happiness, peace, and using every minute wisely, for all of you and all of yours.

20 Comments:

Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Shana Tova.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Beautiful. Shana Tovah Umevorach.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous der blatt said...

Shana Tova.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous shanna said...

MY mother's yahrzeit is 25 Elul. I don't think I had the wherewithall to even think about Unetaneh Tokef that year, but every year thereafter I have wondered just what someone has to do to die right before Rosh Hashana, with less than a week to go before the Teshuva Deadline (as it were).

I try to comfort myself, and apply some rationality to it all, by meditating on the inscriptions into the Books of "Life" and "Death" as metaphors for the quality of life, the circumstances of death, one's spiritual status, etc. It's really the only way I can get through this stuff.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous sharona said...

shana tova

1:32 PM  
Anonymous chuck said...

hi you said
know that we are supposed to interpret this poem metaphorically,
i think its real, maybe not may lightning strike you down real, but still real
i'm not a gush katrina fan
but i still think god had deep and long calculations regarding justice

2:01 PM  
Blogger Shifra said...

I'm sorry Shana, that must make this time of year very difficult for you and your family.

Thanks for everything this year OM!

Shana Tova everyone!

3:03 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Shanah Tovah, Orthomom!

3:43 PM  
Blogger tuesdaywishes said...

I never get through that part of davening without crying. May you have a healthy happy year.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

The Netaneh Tokef tefilla was the last one spoken by a dying Jew, whose hands and feet had been chopped off for refusing to convert.

Read the story here: http://www.ou.org/chagim/roshhashannah/unetaneh.html

Shana Tova. Chatmia Tova.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Elie said...

I had a lot of difficulty with Unesaneh Tokef this year. I will write more about it in my blog if can process the feelings enough to be coherent.

10:18 AM  
Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thank you for sharing the forward about valuing time. It really puts things into perspective.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Ayelet said...

G'mar chatima tovah!

8:52 PM  
Blogger Glen Holman said...

What a beautiful way of looking at it. Thanks for sharing.

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I think it was so painful for you because I couldn't imagine having a situation like that.

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