Ringing in the new year

These are what Jews traditionally call the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur when we contemplate the year that is passed, consider how we hope to be “inscribed” in the book of the year that is to come, and make amends to those whom we have upset or worse in the past year. Rosh Hashonah is full of hopes for a sweet new year and its celebration with apples and honey has spread throughout our household, so that the girls can hardly imagine eating apples without honey at any time. But a central moment in the Rosh Hashonah liturgy is the chanting of a very foreboding prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef. In this prayer the congregation declares itself in judgment by G-d and recounts both potential boons and a litany of horrible ways in which some might suffer and die in the year to come, which can be tempered–not avoided–by repentance, prayer and charity.

This litany of possible fates foretold has become very hard to take since my brother’s death, which happened in a way that could have been included in this primal list. But beyond the personal impact for me and my family, I have noticed over the past few years that, at least in our Reform shul, a lot of work is going on to frame the Unetaneh Tokef in less starkly prophetic terms. Without knowing a whole lot about anything, I suspect this is happening more broadly. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi (love it), wrote of the Unetaneh Tokef in terms of the metaphorical work it does to remind of us G-d’s utter abstraction from human existence:

Ultimately, this prayer reminds us, God is “beyond explanation;” this set of metaphors is one way to approach that unknowable reality, but in the end it’s just a human construct, as all of our words for God are.

With something of this perspective perhaps in mind, this year our rabbi preceded the prayer by describing it as the most challenging part of our liturgy, and urged us to think of it in the broader context of our collective effort of repentance and hope for redemption over the Days of Awe. Then the prayer was chanted in Hebrew, but not read aloud afterwards in English. I can’t recall if this has always been our practice, but I do wonder if the greater cushioning of this section of the liturgy reflects a post-September 11 consciousness in our community. Or maybe it reflects the general impulse within Reform Judaism to see ways in which even the most unyielding parts of the liturgy are in dialogue with our desire for tikkun olam, repairing the world, which is based not on an assumption  of a messianic upending of our human world but, instead, on our unrelenting efforts to make it better in our lives and for the next generations.

A few days before Rosh Hashonah, I went to Shabbat evening prayers to say yahrzeit for Aaron: the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish prayer on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. This has become the ritual that might be the most intense connection with his loss that I experience in the whole year, and I look forward to it with dread based on past experience. This year was not as brutal as last year’s tenth anniversary, and I am grateful to have the support of my rabbis and of those at the shul who know my story. But I was struck, as ever, by the many overlapping life-cycle moments that take place in the shul at any given time: mourners, new babies and converts being celebrated, Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids with braces glinting, and others who simply want to welcome the bride of the Sabbath. I wrote a poem about this experience of mourning observance on the eve of Rosh Hashonah and the recitation of the Unetaneh Tokef. As ever, it is, in manufacturing terms, WIP (work in progress), and your comments are welcome, especially if you can point to places that were not clear, were unconvincing, or made you reread. That’s a poet’s Unetaneh Tokef right there in terms of readers’ fates.


Ringing In


On the last Shabbat before the new year

I braced in the last row of the sanctuary,

Waiting to greet the bride

And mourn my brother.


At the front of the room a family

Leaned together and clasped hands,

Their happy milestone plowed together

With bar mitzvahs and me this night.


But as the ark opened, the rabbi’s mic

Picked up the clinks and glissades

Of the Torah undressed of its

Crowns and regalia,


And sent back to my corner

The noise of a box of cymbals,

Thrown down steep stairs

To crash open the door


Of a past year, written but

Never sealed—the last clanging edge

Wedging the doorframe wide,

A book’s worn binding struck open


To where it says some you love

May die by beasts, by water or fire,

The old expedients whose names

Choke beneath the song of this new year.


September 2012


Copyright © Josh Jacobs 2012


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