Tuesday, 10 September 2013

U'ntaneh Tokef

Posted by Mark

To our non-Jewish readers, the title of this post probably reads like a random hitting of the keyboard. Jewish readers however, may well recognise the name of one of the most poignant and powerful parts of the Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) synagogue service. It is a beautiful piyyut (Liturgical poem) and has always managed to move me but I think even more so this year following Samuel's diagnosis. In particular, the central part which can be translated as follows:

On Rosh Hashana it is written 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 at the full length of his days and who before; who by fire and who by the sword. Who by wild beast and who by hunger ... who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer; who will become poor and who will become rich; who will fall and who will rise.

It is pretty powerful stuff (much more so in the original Hebrew) and whether or not you believe that such things are somehow 'written' and whether or not you believe the piyyut's hopeful exhortation that in spite of this predestination:

Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert the severe decree

It is nonetheless a deeply moving reminder that so much of the future is beyond our control. I always look around me at this point in the service, trying to really grasp and acknowledge that although we are here today, there is no way of knowing who will be missing when the words are repeated in services next year. Those who appear ill and frail may well be amongst us while those who seem the strongest and seem to have years ahead of them may no longer be here. Each year there are a few new faces from new people who have joined the synagogue, but there are also faces that should be there but just aren't any more.

This year I was also particularly aware of the parents sitting with their children who, when Juliette and I first joined the synagogue, were little kids and now are grown up. I thought of Joseph and Sammy and how much I hope that in many years to come they will sit with us, grown taller and stronger than us, and wonder how it was that they grew up so quickly.

But at the same time I know that this picture may not come true. Juliette and I both spoke about how hard it will be if one day we will have to go to Rosh Hashanna or Yom Kippur services and Samuel is no longer with us. But I suppose one of the points of the U'ntaneh Tokef piyyut is to remind us that we just do not know what tomorrow holds for any of us and we should be mindful of this fact. Yes it is true that Samuel has a life-shortening condition but there are some people with CF who have lived well into old age, and who is to say he won't be one of those? And who knows what advances will be made in research and treatment next year and the year after that and the year after that? And even without CF, how do we know who will die at the full length of his days and who before?

Here is hoping that we will all be inscribed in the book of life, blessing and peace for the coming year.

P.S. We have decided that Samuel should become a 'Baal Tokea'. One of the highlights of this time of year is the blowing of the shofar  (Ram's horn) during services. It needs a lot of puff to blow it well and a good Baal Tokea (person who blows the shofar) needs to develop good lung capacity to do it well so practising the shofar should be good for Sammy's lungs - although what bacteria could be lurking in a ram's horn probably doesn't bear thinking about!

I just saw this awesome video on popchassid.com of a baal tokea blowing a shofar in all sorts of crazy places across Israel! Enjoy, and a Happy New Year!

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