In what is arguably the most moving part of the High Holiday liturgy, a piyut (liturgical poem) called Unetaneh Tokef presents us with a stirring image of a celestial court in which our deeds are judged and our lives hang in the balance. Through the powerful language of the piyut, we express our existential angst, our fears, our barely dared for hopes: who shall live, we wonder, who shall die? How gentle or brutal shall those deaths be? Will they be the culmination of a long and fulfilling life, or the truncation of a shockingly short one?
Who was with us last Rosh Hashanah, but is no longer? We each have an intimate circle of ones dear to us. If we enter the Holy Day season with our precious circle intact, we are grateful. If we have lost someone, we struggle with bereavement, especially during the first High Holiday without that person.
I can’t help, this year, but think of those I don’t know personally, but whose life cut short affects me: the casualties of fallen IDF soldiers, of victims of rocket fire and missiles, and of vengeance and violent vigilantism. I think of Gazan children, doomed by a conflagration not of their making. I think of the terrible deaths of the young people kidnapped and cruelly murdered – the three teen-aged yeshiva students hitchhiking home near Hebron, the 16-year-old Muslim boy waiting for early morning prayer during Ramadan. All young lives, dying well before their time.
In face of recent events, the Yamim Nora’im seem to approach with a particular soberness this year. The piyut insists that we listen for the small still voice, kol demama daka. The phrase is striking. The small, still voice – easy to ignore, to drown out, to tune out. For me, it was heard in early July, and noted in the Israeli press, but was then eclipsed by later events.
The small, still voice made itself heard through the family of the murdered Naftali Frenkel, who – in the midst of their own grieving, expressed horror and moral outrage at the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir. They said, “There is no difference when it comes to blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for any murder.” The small, still voice made itself heard through the Etzion-area Palestinians who visited the Frenkel family during shivah. One of them reflected, “The moment we learn to deal with each other’s pain and stop the anger against one another, the situation will be better.” And the small still voice was heard through Naftali Frenkel’s uncle when he offered condolences to the parents of the slain Abu Khdeir during their period of mourning, speaking as a member of one bereaved family to another. He said, “The life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.”
In her 1997 short story Celine’s Park, Israeli writer Nava Semel depicts an Israeli mother taking her children to a playground established in memory of a child murdered in the Shoah. A daughter of survivors, the mother understands the grief of Celine’s bereft parents and hopes for a better future for her own children in Israel. Semel’s story stresses the blessed difference between Celine’s truncated life and her children playing blissfully in the playground bearing her name. At the same time, under-shadowing the story is the dangers that threaten her children. The mother imagines a world where people’s lives run their natural course, rather than ending prematurely and in violence.
Her reflection can serve as a prayer of sort, as we face our existential destiny in the coming days: “I will be buried here. Parents and children in a geometric progression. One day the children of their children will come, point to the graves and say: ‘This is grandmother. This is mother. That’s the right order.’”