“And who by fire, who by water, / Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime,” sings Leonard Cohen, picking up on a thousand year old poem that is one of the touchstones of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
The poem that Leonard Cohen sings is known by its first two words, Unetaneh Tokef¸ meaning let us cede power. Its vision is disarmingly clear: during the year to come, some will die, some will live. While we can disagree about fate and free choice, we know that a year from now, some of our people will be with us again in prayer, and some will be gone.
The question, writes Helen Plotkin in her meaningful reflection on Unetaneh Tokef, is not whether some will suffer and die. Rather it’s how we will live the gift of the days of our lives. Will we, as the poem encourages us, practice teshuvah (repentance, return), tefilah (prayer, gratitude, lovingkindness), and tzedakah (charity, righteousness, working for social justice, environmental justice, economic justice, etc.)? As Plotkin says, we have no control over whether we will die. We can only change the way we live until then.
Today, the twenty-eighth of Elul 5774, less than forty-eight hours before Rosh Hashanah 5775 begins, I read Plotkin’s piece. For years I’ve known and returned, time and again, to Leonard Cohen’s song, as I did this morning on my way to work. Their voices, their insights turn and return me to the tradition, the process of tradition, the responsibility to tradition which means responding to it by lending one’s own small voice to the chorus of thousands of years.
On the nineteenth of Elul, I had an opportunity to speak—to read, to sing!—at the kickoff event for the Western North Carolina Jewish Federation annual fundraising campaign. The occasion gave me an opportunity to reflect on the gift one gives by contributing to the WNCJF. In the spirit of this month, Elul, of introspection in preparation for the Days of Awe, and in honor of the practice of receiving tradition and inviting it to speak through you, I composed my own extension of Unetaneh Tokef.
Who lives, I wondered. Who lives?
Who lives in the light of another?
Who lives in the song of the volunteer who serves hot soup?
Who lives in the nailing of boards to frame the house?
Who lives in the bright future of the math tutor’s eye, sitting at the table with a child suffering math?
Who lives in the hour of solace in a furnished room, the soft light of a dying sun gently lifting petals of yellow rose in a vase on the table? Who lives in the social worker’s opening of the door to safety for the broken, almost empty mother from anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere to enter?
Bent son of no parents, cracked speech of a girl who cannot unclench her hand, not even to receive the free falling rain? Who lives?
Who lives in Hebrew letters as they catch fire, startling confusion awake: must the fire be put out before it spreads to the curtains or must we enter the flames like a deep pool in which we will burn without being consumed, the eyes within our eyes open at last to see the whole history of our people, our people finally redeemed?
Who lives in the circle of pluralism, every child, every adult equidistant from the empty center?
Who lives in the pouring out of his life into the glass vessel blown and shaped by the Jewish artist in the hut in the hills, who lives in the lifting of the glass to the lips of the thirsty, the despairing, the grateful woman?
Who lives in the opening of summer camp gates to receive the duffel bags, who lives in the nervous excitement of the child whose life will grow more deeply Jewish in the lake, on the hike, and in the bunk with strangers who transform, over the month, into her people?
Who lives in the car, the moving sanctuary that transports her from the retirement home to synagogue where she can drift and doze for a few hours, familiar melodies holding and carrying the heart that she sometimes longs to just put down on the ground and walk away from?
Who lives in the dollar tossed onto the compost heap, the compost that enriches the soil in which love grows?
Who lives in the pledge, and who lives in honoring the pledge, the pledge of allegiance to life itself, to paradise, to creating, for now, an imperfect paradise where one actual Jew is uplifted merely by sitting or walking in the company of another actual Jew?
Who lives in the light of the open ark, who lives in the children’s holiday art?
Who lives, forgives. Who forgives, gives away the world he created within himself, emptying himself to create space for another’s world to flourish, roar, shine?
Who lives in the campaign for justice, justice tempered by mercy? Who lives in the campaign for compassion, compassion wide enough to hold pieces of broken tablets, the broken tablets every Jew carries, knowingly or unknowingly, on a routine trip to the supermarket, and on the day of Jerusalem’s glory?
Who lives once, lives twice in a gift to another, lives innumerable times as the gift increases and widens, as the gift becomes as ever-present and anonymous and necessary as clean air.
Your signature is promise. Your signature is hope delivered on a holiday, on an ordinary day, to the woman and man and boy and girl who cannot lift their eyes to the mountain from where their help comes.
May we, dear readers, all live in a way that lifts the lives of others, and may we be, this year, a blessing to each other.
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry,Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.