Monday, September 16, 2019 -
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Prayer, under the specter of terror

Shoshannah Brombacher's depiction of the biblical HannahI was sitting before the screen, and trying to focus on writing an inspirational Rosh Hashanah column. Finding the words, feelings and ideas inside, I was writing about prayer. About the biblical Chana. She is our teacher; it is from her that we learn how to pray.

As I was concentrating, suddenly the unthinkable happened. Near an Internet café near Safra Square, in downtown Jerusalem, I suddenly heard shooting and shouting, the sounds of total chaos and mayhem.

There was some mumbling around me for a second when the owner of the café said there was a pigua, a terrorist attack.

Again, an Arab pressed on his accelerator and pressed forward, mowing down soldiers and civilians on the street.

During the nights of Selichot in Jerusalem it has become customary for soldiers to come on tours of old Jerusalem at midnight. When I lived here, I would often see them roaming through the streets of Nachla’ot under the stars, as a group, when the rest of the city was already sleeping, with everything peaceful and quiet. I suppose these soldiers were on just such a Selichot night tour when they found themselves being attacked.

Needless to say, as this calamity unfolded, in a split second, everything changed. The world of analyzing Chana’s poignant prayer seemed worlds away.

The doorstep to Rosh Hashanah suddenly opened deep and wide in a way no other preparation could have revealed. The prayer “Let Us Relate The Power” (Unetaneh Tokef) entered my heart. The words were before me in an instant:

“Man is derived from dust,
likened to a broken shard,
dry grass,
a fading flower,
a passing shadow,
a dispersing cloud,
a returning wind,
scattered dust,
a passing dream . . .”

Our lives here on this earth are so tenuous. Maybe when we look back at this year there is disappointment at dreams not yet realized, grief for irreplaceable losses, the pain of defeat and fear for what is yet to come.

But in an instant, the proximity to such calamity highlights the razor- thin difference between life and death. We truly are so fragile. Anything really can change from one second to the next.

And as long as we are here, every moment truly is a gift. Every hard moment. Every difficult situation. Every sadness — it’s worth being here.

And we must be grateful for that, even when gratitude is the last thing on our mind concerning a particular set of life challenges.
These days of awe are our opportunity to change. To hold the preciousness of every moment in the palm of our hand.
Winds of change is what they are.

Etymologically, the letters of Rosh Hashanah even hold this word of change — of shinui.

When we really make an effort to change, we create the chance for a better day, a better self, a better year, for that is what our lives in the end are. Our lives can add up to a lifetime of Rosh Hashanas. Our lives will be the cumulative growth of real changes.

I don’t mean superficial or external changes like adding on another half hour of study to our day — as vitally important as that is. I mean real changes. The hard ones. Like working on changing our character, how we treat people, how we relate to our Creator, and learning to listen and trust our deepest intuitions.

The words of the in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer highlight the frailty of our lives. At the end of the day, we humans are just material beings — destined to pass through this earth like any other creation.

There is a famous chasidic tale of a rebbe who taught his students to carry with them at all times two competing sayings, two conflicting truths.

In one pocket they should have a piece of paper with the words, “I am but dust and ashes” — in order to attach oneself to the idea of humility, our smallness and fragility. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper with the words, “for my sake the world was created.”

It is in this part of our journey that we can effectuate the color of our eternal destiny. But after this part of our journey we are frozen — powerless to choose, determine, to act on who we want to be.

Far be it for me to understand the workings of this universe. Often things seem unfair. Still, however fragile we are, we can be as strong as we choose to be. We have the power to renew our life, to persevere in the face of the unthinkable.

It is Chana who taught this to us. Famously, she taught us how to pray: her lips moved, yet her voice was inaudible. In prayer, we pronounce the words, but not too loudly.

But more than how to pray technically, Chana taught us about the honesty and integrity of prayer. She shared with G-d what was in her heart. She shared everything — her misery and pain and heartache. True, she did this with the humility of her state of mind, standing as a simple maidservant before G-d, yet she did not shy from lodging complaints against G-d.

She taught us how to be human in our prayer. How to unburden our anguish in prayer, and send it up to the Heavens.

Chana expressed these two conflicting truths of knowing her smallness, her diminutive place in this universe, simultaneous with an almost audacious, demanding stance before G-d. Both her pockets were full.

Chana refused to accept her fate of being childless. “Vatakam” — she rose up, she took the initiative and stepped out of the classic way of approaching G-d of ascending to Shilo and following routine prayers and sacrifices. Chana fought to change her destiny. And in an intense way.

One chasidic commentator highlights the duality of the language pertaining to Chana. With Chana, everything came in twos, in pairs. Her prayer was expressed with the intensity of the twofold. She is angry twice, she weeps twice, she comes before G-d twice, she vows twice, and she receives a double portion.

So this year when we approach G-d we should have both our pockets filled.

On the one hand we are so very fragile, so very small. But on the other hand we can choose to be as developed, as great, as we want to be. And we should pray with the integrity of Chana, with the vulnerability and openness of Chana.

The thing with Chana is that not only did she make requests of G-d, she was also prepared to give to G-d.

Chana vowed that should she be blessed with a child, she would dedicate him to G-d’s service.

Our relationship to G-d is, obviously, not one of cutting deals. But as we stand humbly before G-d, our hearts filled with dreams and desires, we must remember to give of ourselves too, to try to change toward G-d. To pray with both our pockets full.

I hope this year will be one where the split-second changes will be positive, not painful like this pigua that shattered lives in an instant just a minute away from where I am.

I pray that you, together with your loved ones, will be inscribed in the book of life for a shana tova u’metuka — a year that tastes as sweet as honey!

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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