What Life Gives

September 1, 2005
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Penina Adelman

Each year the divine voice deep inside me calls out to the rest of me stuck in the everyday mud of things to look, listen, and learn from my deeds. Each year I strain to hear that voice the best I can, even though I am distracted as I sit in shul by the colors and textures of new clothes and the many, many pages left in the prayerbook.

Picture this. On a Rosh Hashanah in the 10th century, just before the kedusha prayer, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a greatly-respected rabbi, is carried into the synagogue. He is grotesquely injured. The bishop of Mainz ordered his legs and arms to be cut off and salt to be rubbed onto the raw wounds because he had not come when summoned by the Church to declare his intentions to convert to Christianity. The rabbi is so relieved to have survived this torture that, on entering the synagogue, he spontaneously begins to intone from a piyyut, or liturgical poem: ” U-Netanah Tokef kedushat hayom ki hu nora ve’ayom.” (We declare this day’s pure sanctity, its awesome power.) The words falling from his lips are pearls and diamonds embodying the essence of Rosh Hashanah. The congregants, hearing these words for the first time, are incredibly moved by the rabbi’s words. Three days later he dies.

Did Rabbi Amnon believe he had sinned and was paying with his life? As he recited the next line of the prayer, ” u-teshuvah u-tefilah u-tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-g’zeirah,” but penitence, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree, was he desperately hoping that this was, indeed, the case and that he would not die, but be inscribed instead in the Book of Life? Although this story is only a legend, and this prayer can be traced to an early Palestinian prayer pre-dating Rabbi Amnon, the tale, like the prayer, embodies the meaning of Rosh Hashanah.

When I intone the words of U-netanah Tokef , I can see the past year before me unwinding like a scroll. I see people I knew and loved who have died. I see people who were struck by illness, and people who got better. I see people who lost their jobs or failed in their work, and I see people who were recognized for their work and their humanity. I see women who gave birth, and women and men who became parents.

I think about how I have no control, ultimately, over the duration of my life, nor over its quality. Early in our marriage, my husband and I lost several pregnancies. One day I was pregnant with our baby; the next day the baby was gone. Overnight, we were forced to make a drastic change in the way we had always imagined things to be — an order in the universe that we could figure out. There was no explanation. There was only wanting an explanation and having to live without one, year after year.

How does this central Rosh Hashanah prayer guide us? It asks that we continue to reflect on what we have done; this is teshuvah . We are to continue to speak the words of truth our deepest selves need to say; this is tefilah. And we are to continue to do the good we are longing to do for others; this is tzedakah . These are the behaviors captured in the piyyut ; they are the essence of Rosh Hashanah.

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Penina Adelman is Scholar-in-Residence at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her most recent books are The JGirl's Guide: The Young Jewish Woman's Handbook for Coming of Age and Praise Her Works: Conversations with Biblical Women.

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