A Shooting Star

Avram Mlotek
September 21, 2012
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Imagine Yom Kippur night.  The synagogue is packed to capacity.  The aisles overflow, people dressed in white.  Suddenly, the rabbi speaks.

“Kahal, heyliker, kahal!” calls the rabbi.  My holy community!
“Haynt veln mir di sforim nisht nemen.”  We won’t take our holy books today.
“Un der aron farmakht vet haynt shteyn.”  And that holy ark over there?  She’ll stand closed tonight.

“Un tzu Kol Nidrei, haynt, tsu Kol Nidrei…”  As for Kol Nidrei?  His voice is shaky.
“Vet di eydah hakdoyshe aroysgeyn
tsu altn Yiddishn mark.”
Our holy community will instead go out to that timeless place.  The streets.

The community is startled but they know where they’re going.  The rabbi whispers as he leads the community out of synagogue, and the congregants follow him with tears in their eyes.

“In mark oyf tliyes di Yidn
zikh vign in levonesher sheyn.”
Because it’s in the marketplace where Jews are hanging, rocking in the still moonlight.

The image belongs to Yakov Fridman, a Yiddish poet, as he describes Yom Kippur in his poem, Kol Nidrei in Transnistria, a concentration camp in Romania.

In a time of unspeakable horror, the rabbi in Fridman’s poem opted to forgo Kol Nidrei and traditional services, as he walks out to the marketplace to detach his hanging son from the post, and rock him gently.  He cries out to God publicly, asking where God’s compassion dwells.  The poem ends with a shooting star flying through the sky, as the speaker wonders, where does that star fall?

During this month of Elul as we prepare for the high holidays, I wonder: When do we cry out to God?   Do we, should we opt to forgo Kol Nidrei because our own pain may be too much to bear?  Do we, should we take to the streets, with our community, because injustice infuriates us?  And what kind of injustice do we even really know?

Every year on Yom Kippur afternoon as our fasts are finally sinking in, we read the story of Jonah, that depressed prophet unsure of his role in this world.  Jonah attempts to run away from God, only to find himself lost at sea.  He ends up taking upon himself God’s plan to go prophesy in the city of Nineveh but with a vengeful spirit, hoping to see God punish the sinners.  Jonah complains deeply at the end of a long day’s work that his plant’s shade has suddenly dried up and it is God who has the final words:

“You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.  And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of Jonah’s hesitancy and struggle, with Isaiah’s fierceness and passion.  Isaiah’s words are read only a few hours earlier, as the haftarah text shared Yom Kippur morning.

“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin!”  (Translation by JPS Tanakh)

Isaiah’s roaring words strike a fire within me even though they are over a 1000 years old.  Two prophets taking to the streets, attempting to speak truth to power.  Isaiah’s relentless defense for the defenseless and Jonah’s self-pity which prevents him from fulfilling his truest potential.

What would happen this Yom Kippur if, when Isaiah’s barking call gets read along with God’s question to Jonah, we listened as if the words were directed to us, and not only the ancient listeners?  Might we catch a glimpse as to where the grieving rabbi of Transnistria’s shooting star lands?

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Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Forward and The Jewish Week. Avram was recently named in The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.

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