We Light These Lights: A New Hanerot Hallelu Prayer for Hanukkah

The Chicago Light Brigade (photo by Caroline Siede)

The Chicago Light Brigade (photo by Caroline Siede)

We light these lights
for the instigators and the refusers
the obstinate and unyielding
for the ones who kept marching
the ones who tended the fires
the ones would not bow down.

We light these lights
for the sparks that guide us on
through the gentle night
for the darkness that swaddles us
in its soft embrace until the moment
we inevitably emerge
into life renewed.

We light these lights
for the spirit of resilience that remains
after our strength has ebbed away
for the steadfast knowledge even as
the bullets echo repeatedly
off bodies lying in the streets
that the impunity of the powerful
cannot last forever.

These lights we light tonight
will never be used for any other purpose
but to proclaim the miracle
of this truth:
it is not by might nor by cruelty
but by a love that burns relentlessly
that this broken world
will be redeemed.


“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.)


psalm 88: one of these nights

just like they say:
it’s always worse at night.
the shadows lengthen
and once again the dread slowly starts
its nighttime creep.

it’s really quite the routine,
this nocturnal dance of mine
so go ahead, enjoy the show –
i’m sure it must amuse you
the way i thrash through the night,
sheets coiling tighter and tighter
around my throat like
some demented night serpent
faithfully returning every night
to feed on my fears.

one of these nights though
when you least expect it,
the joke will be on you
that’s right i know you’re there
do you really think i can’t see you
lurking offstage in the shadows,
enjoying the nightly entertainment?

oh yes, my latest act
is opening soon and
i just can’t wait to see
the startled confusion on your face
when i finally stop struggling,
spread open my hands,
and sing psalms of praise to you:

the one who hides
in the darkness.


psalm 87: the spaces above

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lifting my eyes skyward,
squinting into the sun,
i almost catch a glimpse of you
dancing across the mountains peaks,
gliding like a flock of birds
winging impossibly high
above the valley.

now i lower my gaze
and the air around me grows leaden;
the sky darkens,
i can almost feel you crashing
back down to earth.

that’s the thing about these
so-called sacred mountains:
they have this way
of drawing our souls
down to the ground
even as they secretly yearn
to soar.

can you show me
how to see beyond?
can you help me to loosen my
idolatrous grip upon your land
that i make truly see
your dwelling place?

can you teach me once and for all
that these peaks point upward
so I might somehow be guided
into the spaces above?


psalm 86: heart of my longing

falling_star-Night_sky_HD_wallpaper_1920x1080

i’m not calling out to you any more.
no more simplistic, needy prayers.
no more pleading to you for rescue
on my day of trouble.

they say there’s none like you
but i’m starting to realize
that you’re all created
more or less the same:
jealous, imperious, possessive
and come to think of it,
pretty needy in your own right.

for so long i’ve sent out my yearning,
for too long i’ve fixated on you
and your boundless largesse,
never stopping to consider
you might really just be
a reflection of my own
inner impoverishment.

so as of now you’re off the hook.
i’m going over your head.
i’m daring to imagine
a boundless source of beneficence
yes, even beyond your own.

no expectations, no desire to fill
this bottomless well of need.
i’m sending my prayer straight into
the heart of my longing,
beyond hope, beyond desire,
for isn’t this the place
where all prayers are truly
and finally answered?


psalm 85: land lord

satellite-image-of-israel
we used to believe all the sorrows
visited for so long upon this land
were just a sign of your
angry, vengeful nature –
that you were visiting
your fierce disappointment
upon generation after generation
of unruly, ungrateful children.

maybe that’s been our problem
all along;
that we’ve been making
this all about you:

projecting our deepest fear and loathing,
onto some petulant, omnipotent
land lord
that we might somehow avoid the truth
of our own dark wrath.

how could we have known
that the terrifying voice
we heard roaring down
from the mountain
was not even yours at all?

how could we have possibly missed
that one fleeting moment
when truth and justice kissed,
then vanished into the
cold night air?


psalm 84: dreams of homecoming

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through lit windows i see them.
i can even experience
however vicariously,
their soft contentment as they move
back and forth
through the glowing warmth of their homes.

like sparrows burrowing their nests
they seem to find refuge in you
no matter how long the day or
dark the night.

turning my eyes back to the road
i look down into the valley
and realize for the first
that an early spring rain
has covered it with blessing.

i spend the night in an open field.
a canopy of stars spreads
over my head and
dreams of homecoming wash
through my soul.
in the morning i rise
and continue on with nothing
but my own yearning to guide my steps

soon enough i will come to know:
i am better off just one day
in this timeless moment
than an eternity anywhere else.

it is on this very threshold of return
that i have come home.