Who By Fire: Reflections on Tashlich and Unetanneh Tokef
Story and photos by Diane Joy Schmidt
Published online September 30, 2015 New Mexico Jewish eLink.
Print version published Gallup Independent, Spiritual Perspectives column.
1st place, SPJ TOR, 2016 Personal Columns for 3 columns. Judge’s comment “Thoughtful, analytical commentary on current events that educate and edify readers.”
The Jewish New Year has begun, and it is now the year 5776. During Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life was opened and in the following ten Days of Awe, we reflected on our errors of the past year and promised not to repeat them, practicing repentance, prayer, and charity.
Then at Yom Kippur the Book, with our fate, was sealed. We will live out another year – or not, or will have a good, or a miserable, year. The most momentous part of these services is when the liturgical poem, the Unetanneh Tokef, is recited while the congregation stands and the Ark is opened. It is, in part, as follows, in a translation:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is
written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
[. . .]
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But return and prayer and righteous acts deflect the evil of the decree.”
There is also a song by the famous musician Leonard Cohen, titled “Who
by Fire.” It is a short song, of three stanzas. Here is the first:
Who By Fire
By Leonard Cohen
“And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?”
Many who have heard this song (myself, for instance) may not have realized the lyrics were deeply inspired by the Unetanneh Tokef. In his cold, baldly modern poetry, Cohen brings home the meaning, in a powerful way, that God is calling.
And for me as a very assimilated, and not very practiced in prayer, Jewish person who is just now learning about my traditions, who often feels overly guilty without ever having known the experience of repentance and forgiveness, the directness of his song got my attention and spoke to me.
After a childhood friend sent me Cohen’s lyrics for the New Year, I then wanted to know more, and for the first time attended tashlich, a ceremony that takes place outdoors on Rosh Hashanah. At the river you cast bread on the water as you cast off your sins, with repentance, and then the shofar, the ram’s horn, is sounded four times.
At tashlich this year in Albuquerque I joined a Jewish community prayer service at the Rio Grande, balancing on the shiny mud spread over the cottonwood roots and fervently skipping my crust of bread out on the broad waters, and I, for perhaps the first time, freely repented and forgave myself and others.
That night I had the following dream:
In the dream I was beseeching a man to allow me to tell my story. Then, it is night and I am walking, followed by a very large German Shepherd on a rise behind me, in a safe neighborhood. Then I notice the German Shepherd has lost one of his forepaws. He seems to have no pain. I grab his other forepaw to stop him and it comes off in my hand. I feel the hard warmth of it, put it in my pocket, and am helped by two others to put him in a cart, and then onto a stretcher, to take him to the hospital.
I had not a single thought that there was any connection between my dream and the Unetanneh Tokef. That next day, as I had become curious to understand and learn a bit more about this special prayer, and thought I might write about it together with the Leonard Cohen song for the holidays, I researched it and read a story of how it came about:
It is said that a rabbi in Germany in the 11th century was pressed by his friend the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. He refused and suggested for his punishment that his tongue be cut out. Instead, the archbishop decreed that his limbs be amputated one by one until he converted.
He refused, and after each of his limbs were amputated, one by one, he was sent home. He asked then to be taken to the synagogue and was brought there on a stretcher, where he recited this original poem and then died. Three days later, he appeared to another rabbi in a dream and beseeched him to write his prayer into the High Holidays services.
For centuries that story has been told about the prayer, which may be much older as it has also been found on ancient scroll fragments discovered in the Cairo Genizah, but I have no recollection that I ever had heard this vivid story. Who knows, maybe I had heard the story, or I tuned in to it, or my DNA memory seedpods burst open with the release of casting away sins – .
Research is now showing that we inherit not only the physical, but also the emotional makeup of our ancestors in our DNA. Perhaps we also inherit their memories, their wisdom, and their fears, all bound up together.