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Rosh Hashana: Embracing Fragility

10/14/2022 11:51:00 AM


Rabbi Ezray

             This summer I read an important book, Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. The book asks us to confront that life is absurdly brief. He calculated that if you live to be eighty, you’ll have lived about 4,000 weeks. His point was to jolt us; time passes so quickly! 

I confess that my initial reaction was to get a little queasy. I did my own calculating about how many of those weeks I have lived and how few remain.  Confronting life’s brevity can be sobering. Things feel so fragile. We want more time, yet time is short.  We want security and know there is none; change can come in a moment.

Judaism asks us to confront the resistance I am describing. Name it. Think about it. That is an aspect of what prayer seeks to achieve, confronting us with life’s truths, in this case fragility and brevity, so that we can overcome our propensity to deny and avoid, and instead accept difficult truths and allow that knowledge to influence our decisions and behave differently.   

Think about the haunting and powerful Unetane Tokef prayer. It asks us to think about how fragile life is, so we can live differently. As I read the book Four Thousand Weeks, I kept thinking that the themes brought up in the book are exactly the themes of the prayer Unetane Tokef. The end of the prayer, which many overlook says: “We are like a fragile vessel, like the grass that withers, the flower that fades, the shadow that passes, the cloud that vanishes, the wind that blows, the dust that floats, the dream that flies away.” Jewish wisdom calls on us to acknowledge and learn from our fragility. Psychologist and author Susan David writes: “Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” She’s right. Facing fragility with clear eyes allows us to live more fully. 

A chilling part of the Unetane Tokef prayer is saying aloud all the different ways people die. Who by fire and who by water. Who by sword and who by beast. Who by hunger and who by thirst – and on it goes. Saying it can feel overwhelming; it is so painful to think about the ways people die. But it is real.  By acknowledging that life can be capricious, we stop hiding and denying   Prayer strips open our hearts -pushing us to think about how to truly make each day count.  In Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman writes: “It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life.” Prayer isn’t merely reciting words from a book, it is confronting what is real, so that we change!  

Yet prayer gets complicated by theology. You read Unetane Tokef and the picture of an all-powerful God sitting in heaven recording our fates based on our behavior emerges. It is in this prayer and throughout the Bible, and causes so much hurt, dissonance and anger. What about the good people who died or received devastating diagnoses? Is that a Divine decree based on something we may or may not have done? Many people of faith will say, “I cannot understand God, but God is God, and I am not.” That is the response of Job and many others, humble acceptance and deep seeded belief. Part of me holds on to that theology, and part of me rebels. A piece of prayer is the dialogue we have within ourselves and with others about what we believe or don’t believe. Sometimes that dialogue results in new theologies emerging and prayers changing. At this point in my life, I find myself pulled to a different view of God than one which decides our fate based on our behavior and choose to interpret the Unetane Tokef prayer in another way, that I believe is embedded in the words.   

When I read the prayer carefully, I read it not as God deciding our fate and writing it down, but as God reading what we experience. The prayer pictures God opening a book and reading: u’me’alav yi’kare–and from it God reads. Then the prayer says: chotam yad kol adam bo-everyone’s signature is in it. The book is what has happened to us. God’s control and power are limited by giving us free will and establishing laws of nature which means terrible things can happen, having nothing to do with our character. As I read the prayer, God reads our stories and sometimes that includes tragic pain. The realities we experience are real and need to be voiced. Fragility is our human condition to which God listens, reading our stories, and in my theology caring what is in my and each of our books. Rabbi Asher Lopatin explains it this way: “The God of Unatene Tokef has spent the last year stepping back from the world in order to let human beings act independently, and those actions become the book of the world, signed by [each of us]. (Who By Fire, Who By Water, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, p. 158)

Fate simply is. The list of Who Shall Live? Who Shall Die? is not God in heaven deciding fate, it is the human condition.  In fact, the list of terrifying potential deaths do not employ the name of God! The prayer describes what happens: Who by fire? Who by earthquake? Who by plague? Me and you. We have seen it and lived it. The point of the prayer is for us to confront and feel our mortality and fragility; we pour out our heart as we name what is real. There is power in naming our truth and sharing our stories and then we allow those truths to focus on our responses and the stories which might emerge. I needed Unetane Tokef this year; fragility is so real. I need to name it.

What happens when we name fragility? We let it out. We process it. We weave our emotions into our stories and begin to slowly regain our ground as we figure out how to respond. We find support. We gain perspective

As we confront what is real, we focus on what is really important. In her book Bittersweet, Susan Cain writes about how awareness of life’s fragility can bring us strength, wisdom, and even joy. She writes about Dr. Laura Carstensen, who runs the Stanford Life-span Development Laboratory and Stanford Center on Longevity, who teaches that acknowledging fragility has the power to help us to live in the present, forgive more easily, love more deeply, and experience more gratitude and contentment, and less stress and anger. (Cain, p. 185). Think about each of those impacts of acknowledging fragility and how you might develop them more deeply. Cultivate perspective; notice and remember the positive, savor precious moments, embrace compassion. Let goals change and gratitude grow.  

As we name our fragility, we also become awareness of others’ fragility, and treat one another with compassion, being gentler and kinder. Fragility becomes a bridge that connects us. We all experience this together.   

Think about your book. Allow the fragility of the past year that is so real for each of us to focus us on what is truly important. Prayer ultimately moves us to action. After naming fragility, Unetane Tokef asserts that all we can control is our response to life’s challenges and it names three things: teshuva – returning to our best selves; tefilla – lifting our voices, reflecting on values and response; and tzedakah – reaching out to those in need to transform the severity of the decree. It is extraordinary wisdom. It does not avert or change reality, but it helps us cope with reality.

Don’t allow prayer to merely be recitation of words. Let prayer be heart, honestly pouring out what is deep inside of you. Interpret and reinterpret the prayers so that they guide and direct you down the path of who we might become.    Let prayer help us confront what we might otherwise deny or overlook and strengthen us as we integrate what is real into our emerging story. Journalist Frank Bruni wrote a book about losing his vision called The Beauty of Dusk. He writes as one who did not find much meaning in organized religion or faith but discovered himself turning to prayer as he faced his new reality. Listen to his words: “I asked that I not be saddled with more than I could bear and that my back prove sturdy enough to be saddled with a lot.” Prayer brought awareness that he had the capacity to express his hopes, face his fragility, and seek perspective.

Through prayer he re-discovered stillness and, “constructed the requisite sense of security.” Prayer helped him feel guided by something larger than the sum of his different parts, and it brought him peace. Let’s allow prayer to create stillness and listen carefully to those moments of quiet. In Unetane Tokef we say: “The great shofar will be sounded and the still, small voice will be heard.” Let prayer be listening to the blast of the shofar awaken us and that voice inside each of us whispering, waiting to be heard if only we will listen. What is that still, small voice saying to you?

Allow yourself to reframe how you consider prayer. Prayer is not praise of a God we either reject or certainly does not need our praise. Prayer reminds us of our highest values; what it means to be godly: gratitude, awe, peace, redemption, love, and so much else! We dream of what might be so that we can act to make it happen. The Hebrew word for prayer means to judge oneself. We encounter that which is godly and seek to live in that way. Author Anne Lamott writes: “I pray to be a good servant because I’ve learned that this is the path of happiness. I pray for my family and all my sick friends that they have days of grace and healing, and I end my prayers, ‘Make me ever mindful of the needs of the poor.’” That is how tefilla helps transform the decree. 

At the end of the play Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton asks, “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story?” According to Unetane Tokef, we tell our story, and it is recorded. It isn’t edited or curated, as Eliza did with her husband’s story. It is what happened to us-everything. God reads and cares. Think about your story; sit with it. Think about the next chapters of how we might transform what occurred.  We write our books. I end with my prayer building on the Unetane Tokef about my story.

Dear God, Life feels so fragile.

I know life is so short.

Help me treasure each day and moment.

May I slow down so that I truly listen to myself and others and You.

May I embrace the blessings of my life.

Open my eyes to see the world with awe and compassion.

Let my decisions reflect meaning and love, peace and wisdom.

Allow me to transform pain into purpose.

Let me feel your Presence.

Lift me up. 

Hear my story. 


Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783