“Who Shall Live?” A New Prayer for Rosh Hashanah

unetaneh

The U’netaneh Tokef prayer is one of the signature moments of the Rosh Hashanah service – the moment in which we invoke the image of a Book of Life for the coming year and ask a litany of versions of the question, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?”

It often seems to me that this prayer is at its core a meditation on the randomness and precariousness of existence – a way of giving voice to our deepest fears over that which we cannot ultimately control in our lives and world.

However the kicker comes at the end: after all the uncertainty, we conclude by proclaiming “But repentance, worship and acts of justice can avert the harshness of the decree.” We do not – cannot – simply end on a note of fatalistic dis-empowerment. U’netaneh Tokef says, in essence, “yes, there is indeed harsh cruelness in our world – so what do we intend to do about it?”

After all, so much of what seems random in our world is in fact the blowback of our own actions, individual and collective. While it may be temping to simply throw up our hands and blame this cruelty on others – or the vicissitudes of a “random world” – the harder truth bids us to take a deeper look within, reckon with our own culpability, and think honestly about what we are prepared to do to make this new year one of peace, wholeness and justice for all.

Here’s a new version of the prayer that I’ve just written for the inaugural Rosh Hashanah service at my new congregation, Tzedek Chicago. Feel free to read and share:

U’netaneh Tokef

We say together:
We declare the terrifying power of this day,
this awesome, sacred day.
We hear the great shofar sounded once again.
We listen for the still, small voice in its wake.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
This is the season we dare to ask out loud:
who will live and who will die?

Who by famine and who by war;
who through oppression and who through neglect;

Who by weapons and who by dehumanization;
who through hatred and who through ignorance.

Who in the dark and who in the bright light of day;
who by passion and who by design.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
Who will benefit from power and who will be victimized by it;
who will dwell in safety and who will be uprooted.

Who will be targeted and who will be collateral damage;
who will escape and who will fall.

Who will be beaten down and who will rise above;
who will find peace and who will dwell in darkness.

Who will be protected and who will be vulnerable;
who will be counted and who will fall through the cracks.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
Who will be privileged and whose chances will be slim;
who will brought in and who will be cast out.

Who will be healed and who will not have access to healing;
who will be fed and who will go hungry.

Who will be loved and who will be despised;
who will reach out and who will turn away.

Who will written in and who will be erased;
who will succumb and who will fight back.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

Together:
וּתְשׁוּבָה, וּתְפִילָה, וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagezeyrah.

(But repentance, worship and acts of justice can overturn the harshness of the decree.)


azazel danced

The Deopokhari festival in Nepal is held to appease what locals believe is a demon that resides in a pond. Every year, goats and other animals are sacrificed to the pond demon so that no human lives will be lost to drowning. (Photo: Niranjan Shrestha / AP)

azazel danced down the edge of
the rocky slope when the
animal finally appeared in
the distance looking up he saw empty confessions
dissolving like beads of water on a
hot desert floor marveling at the desperate
neverending thirst for expiation how wonderful to
let a poor beast die for your sins how delectably
deliciously marvelous he reached the
bottom of the dry riverbed skipping gleefully in
anticipation he ran to greet the offering so
ravenous he didn’t bother to glance
behind at the dessicated goat
carcasses lying in heaps on the
floor of the
valley

(Leviticus 16:6-10)


Locking Our Children Away: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.

Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.

Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job,  but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.

I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that could scare even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood.

Read the rest of this entry »


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