Rosh Hashanah 5774: Writing Ourselves Into the Story
By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer
I’d like to begin today by sharing a poem with you, one that touches me deeply every time I read it. In “Remembering our Fathers,” Chava Pinchas Cohen weaves her own experience and memories into the core themes of our Rosh Hashanah Musaf. The poet wasn’t in shul for the holiday; she was in the delivery room, giving birth. To convey to you a sense of the rich texture of the poem but also so that non-Hebrew speakers can grasp it too, I’ll interweave some of the Hebrew with the English translation:
On Rosh Hashanah, I didn’t bow
My head for Malkhuyot, I was giving birth, the Melech was there alone.
I wrapped myself in Zichronot.. My father, my father –
Like a knight, he carried me on his shoulders
To see through the window of the Sephardic synagogue
At the end of Seven Mills street near the Yarkon
To be part of the kahal in white, breathing,
at the moment of Tru’ah
Blowing, contracting –
the hour of opening
In the yard, flowering jasmine,
Mandarins and guava bore the fall with simple grace.
Rain has no fragrance; it’s the earth that gives forth
The smell of roots and of rot.
The rose petals flowing onto the airy soil
already knew that even if the wind sweeps away signs
Remembrance will come for goodness,
L’khayn, l’chesed, u’vikar l’rahamim,
grace, kindness, love, and above all,
Did my father know then
Not to leave a child alone
Alongside a window noisy
From the blasts of the shofar within?
Did he know?
In a sudden moment of Elul
My father left –
And even when I have turned against him
My thoughts dwell on him still.
And so – though it’s not in the world’s order –
So many years later
At the moment of nursing [my baby]
I yearn for him still.
There it all is, the intimate integration of our human experience with the words, images, language of our sacred service, the finding of a pathway to deep truths about oneself, one’s longings, capacity to love, abiding sense of loss — in the powerful tropes of Zichronot – Memories, Remembrance — and Shofarot,the breath blown through the shofar to create a cry piercing our hearts and reaching to the heavens, like a mother crying out in the pain of labor, as her baby struggles to be born. Even when I have turned against him my thoughts dwell on him still, God says of us, God’s people, in Zichronot; in those words from the prophet Jeremiah, the poet finds language for the knotted complexity of her emotions about her own father.
If we are deeply attentive, if we allow ourselves to be as entirely present in our prayers, as entirely vulnerable as a woman in labor, we too can find truths of our being in Zichronot, the center of our Rosh Hashanah Musaf. We too can find truths about our own remembering and our being remembered, truths about the powerful call to Remember, and perhaps, too, truths about forgiveness.
Zichronot draws us into the heart of these Yamim Noraim because Remembering is the pulsebeat of the Jewish experience.
As Jews, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, we are not commanded to believe, we are commanded “to remember.”
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
Remember what Amalek did to you.
In the words of the psalmist, By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
And, insistently, over and over again like a refrain, “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
169 times in our Bible, a version of the word Remember appears.
Paradoxically, however, as historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi has written, our ability to remember is “the most fragile and capricious of our faculties” (as those of us who have reached a certain age undoubtedly can verify).
How do we deal with that paradox? On the one hand, we’re called upon, commanded, to remember, remember, remember, while, on the other, as vulnerable human beings our memories can be so askew, mere illusions, and we may so willfully fahggedaboudit?
How do we meet the challenge to make central to our way of being what is actually so fragile, so capricious, about us?
I believe that that our poets can show us the way …
For our contemporary poet, it was finding her own story of remembrance of childhood, loss, and love in the language of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf.
For a medieval poet, whose name has been lost to us, it was a way of seeing the Jewish story itself.
“A fire kindles within me as I recall – when I left Egypt,” he writes,
“But I raise laments as I remember – when I left Jerusalem…
Moses sang a song that would never be forgotten – when I left Egypt,
Jeremiah mourned and cried out in grief, when I left Jerusalem.”
I left Egypt. I left Jerusalem.
What a profoundly different conception of the “I” our medieval poet offers us from the one we are most familiar with. American individualism and the linear historical paradigm of modernity – our intellectually-constructed separation of past, present, future — collaborate to create an image for us of a supposedly unique, bounded, self, ultimately on its own, with its short-lived history, its desires, anxieties, disappointments, triumphs.
Yet that sense of self is just a self-created illusion. To begin with we are all “a little world made cunningly of elements,” the self-same elements that compose the stars. Every human cell embodies the history of the universe, the whole human story. We share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees – and 25% with bananas!
And just as we, as humans, share our fundamental make-up with other living creatures (and fruits!), so, as our medieval poet suggests so movingly, every Jew, whether Jew by birth or Jew by choice, embodies the whole story of our people. I left Egypt. I left Jerusalem.
And that leads us to the paradox and the power at the heart of our Musaf. For the Jewish story is not linear; it is not what we think of as “history.” We – not merely our ancestors – were slaves unto Pharoah in Egypt. We were brought out with a “strong hand and an outstretched arm.” We stood at Sinai – and every once in a while we meet someone and are absolutely sure it is they who was standing right next to us. Our modern selves imagine us as time-bound; our Jewish souls know better.
And so our liturgist, our poet of the holy, in the Zichronot verses gathers together the texts of our tradition to depict the God we pray to today as Ultimate Reality, Vehicle and Container of infinite memory, knowing all that was, and is and will be – every deed of every creature, “every mystery from the moment of creation.” But lest we say that such a God is way too far away from us, way too abstract, the poet remarkably infuses that image with immense compassion: drawing on verses from Torah, Psalms, and Prophets, the poet evokes God as One who remembers not only Noah, but the faultless animals locked up so long in an ark; the God who hears our “agonized cry” as oppressed slaves; the God who in the vision of our prophet Jeremiah admits that loving is not easy, anger is real, and compassion matters.. Even when I speak against him…my heart reaches out to him, say the lines.
And so the lines of Zichronot implicitly call upon us to remember as well, to write ourselves into the story. How, when, where, do we act with “immense compassion’ for the innocent, the most vulnerable, the desperate survivor?
“God has made wondrous works to be remembered,” says Zichronot – what sense of wonder, what moments of wonder, what appreciation for God’s wondrous works, do we remember? Let us call upon them, see them, celebrate them, fill our hearts with gratitude for the blessing of them, praise the Creator of the Universe for them.
Remembering the “chesed” of our youth as a people, God wrestles with the maelstrom of feelings for us, anger, compassion, and yes, sweet love – When do we remember such chesed? When have we opened ourselves to affection, to gentle lovingkindness, to trust? What does it take for us to overcome anger in our own lives, let our heart become vulnerable, and reach out in love? How, when, where, do we act with “immense compassion”?
Do we love others with the fullness our liturgy portrays God loving us?
And just as vital as the love is the passion to help the oppressed. God heard the cry of the slaves. How, when, where, do we hear the “agonized cry” of the millions of slaves in the world today, and what actions do we take to help free them? The cry of the the 1.6 million children homeless every year in the United States, the 82,000 people homeless every night in our city?
Let us write ourselves into the Zichronot story. Let us, too, Remember all that we are and can be as fully alive beings on this planet earth, as covenanted Jews.
In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “Redemption lies in remembering.”