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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"...who shall live and who shall die..."

I have a confession to make:  I sit and fidget in synagogue on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur just like (or probably worse than) most of you. 

Don't get me wrong, I find some parts of the high holiday services extremely moving.  But there are long sections of the reader's repetition that leave me thumbing through the machzor (holiday prayer book) to check just how many pages remain. 

Sound familiar? 

Some of you are nodding at your monitors... and some of you just told your first fib of the new year.  :-)

One of the things that I noticed a few years ago during one of these inspirational lulls was a story in a footnote connected to the origin of one of the most inspirational liturgical poems (In my humble opinion) in the entire holiday liturgy; The 'U'Netaneh Tokef' prayer.  For those not familiar with it, allow me to share:

It seems that about a thousand years ago in the German city of Mainz there lived a man named Rabbi Amnon who was an adviser to (and by some accounts a friend of) the Bishop of that city.  During one of their conversations the Bishop asked Rabbi Amnon if he would convert to Christianity.   Instead of refusing out of hand, the Rabbi asked for three days to consider the matter.  When he got home he was beside himself, not because he had been asked to convert, but rather because he had given the Bishop the impression that he was actually considering apostasy. 

Rabbi Amnon spent the next three days fasting and in a deep state of mental self-flagellation.  When three days were up and he hadn't returned to give the Bishop his answer, the Bishop had him brought before him.  When asked for his answer Rabbi Amnon told the Bishop that he deserved to have his tongue cut out for the sin of even hinting that he would renounce his faith.  Upon hearing this the Bishop responded that the sin was not in his tongue for what he had said, but rather in his feet for not returning at the appointed time.  The Bishop then ordered that Rabbi Amnon's legs be cut off... joint by joint.  Once his legs were gone his hands hands and arms were also ordered removed... again, joint by joint. 

Admittedly, the first thing that crossed my mind when I read this account was that it casts some small doubt upon the theory that the two had been friends.  But I digress.

Once the amputations had been completed, Rabbi Amnon was taken to his home (along with his severed body parts) to die. He lingered close to death for a few days until Rosh Hashannah when he asked to be carried into the synagogue so that he could attempt to sanctify G-d's name as a partial reparation for the desecration of G-d's name he had caused by giving the impression that he would convert. 

At his request he was carried to the center of the synagogue where he offered a prayer of his own composition - the 'U'Netaneh Tokef' (translation here) ... and then immediately died. 

The story that is told by the compilers of our prayer books is that three days after his death Rabbi Amnon appeared to Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam in a dream and taught him the text of the original prayer he had offered, with the request that it be distributed to all Jewish communities for inclusion in the Holiday liturgy.

For the record, this last part of the story strikes me as a little 'iffy'.  It seems much more reasonable that someone who was present when Rabbi Amnon died after reciting his prayer-poem was so moved by the event that he wrote it down from memory after the holiday and took it upon himself to publicize it.

Whatever the actual path by which the poem entered our high holiday liturgy, the historical events seem to have indeed taken place.  Rabbi Amnon was asked to convert.  He was tortured and had his limbs amputated for ultimately refusing.  He was carried into the synagogue where he offered a personal prayer before expiring. 

Well, this year I sat fidgeting through the reader's repetition of the Mussaf (additional late morning) service on Yom Kippur and wondered to myself how I was going to make it through the day.  As we approached the recital of 'U'Netaneh Tokef' I had the passing thought that nothing like this could ever happen today.  I mean, no matter what the circumstances, a person couldn't simply interrupt the reader and interject his own supplication/addition to the codified service, right?

You can imagine that I was a bit surprised to receive an emphatic answer to my un-asked question only a couple of hours later during the mincha (afternoon) service.

We were most of the way through the afternoon service and my concentration was ebbing quickly.  I had gone through all the extra reading material I'd brought with me, and was starting to feel a little sorry for myself because of my sore back and legs.  Then the reader began reciting 'Avinu Malkeinu' (Our Father our King) which is basically a long list of requests we make to G-d for the coming year. 

As he started reading (and the congregation answered each line responsively), the normally quiet crowd began to whisper and nudge one another.  I turned to see what the commotion was about and could not believe my eyes when I saw Elroi Rafa'el walking by himself up the center aisle towards the reader's desk.

For those who are new here, a little background might be necessary (or you for more details you can read here, here and here).

I knew Elroi because he was a neighbor and I sometimes gave him rides to his base near Beer Sheva.  He was an officer in an elite combat unit until just before the disengagement when he was tragically wounded while leading his men in Gaza.  A large piece of shrapnel entered his skull and came to rest in his brain stem.  He was airlifted to the hospital and his family was rushed to his side... but his parents were told by all the doctors that the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  He would certainly never wake up from so serious an injury... and if he didn't die within a day or two he would probably exist in a persistent vegetative state.

Elroi's family is a deeply religious one and refused to accept this.  Our entire community held daily meetings where Psalms were recited, and almost exactly a year ago his father stood at the readers desk of our synagogue and tearfully declared that he didn't care what the doctors said.  His son would not die... and would in fact make a full recovery... if only enough people would only pray for it.

Many treppenwitz readers (and their communities) joined in prayers and thinking good thoughts about this young officer... and within a few weeks he had miraculously woken up from his coma.  He was completely paralyzed on the left side of his body, but he could communicate and you can imagine his family was extremely grateful to have him back.

For the past year people have continued to pray for his recovery and Elroi Rafa'el has been in a special rehabilitation hospital working with gritty determination to try to regain the use of his body. 

Over the past few months I have seen him stand up from his wheelchair momentarily, and took it as an encouraging sign.  But nobody was prepared to see him actually walking on his own... and certainly not unbidden up to the reader's table in the middle of Yom Kippur services!

When Elroi reached the reader's table he stood next to the person leading the service and seemed to be waiting for something.  The sidelong clances of the reader indicated he was equally in the dark as to what was going on.

We didn't have long to wait.

Just as the reader was about to chant the line, "Our Father our King, send a complete recovery to the sick among your nation", Elroi touched him on the arm to interrupt him and in a clear strong voice intoned the request himself. 

I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried like a baby when I witnessed this. I mean, who better to make such a request on behalf of the nation of Israel than Elroi Refa'el Mizrachi?  The only question that remained was why he had decided to stand up and make the request himself... although two possibilities come to mind:

1.  Having been personally granted such a request, he was arguably a good candidate to make the request on behalf of others.

2.  Since for over a year others have been making the request for Elroi, now that he is able to ask that his recover be completed (I noticed he still walks with great difficulty and his left hand is quite weak), he wanted to ask on his own behalf.

Whatever the reason he had in mind, it was a very moving moment. 

A thousand years ago an evil decree by a German Bishop cost a man his limbs and ultimately his life.  But with the last of his strength this man fought back and chose to sanctify G-d's name... an event which gave us one of the more inspirational portions of our holiday service. 

A little more than a year ago an evil decree was handed down to a young IDF officer... the son and brother of my neighbors... and thousands of people used their prayers and good wishes to drag him back from death.  And in an unforgettable sanctification of G-d's name, Elroi walked to the front of our synagogue and took up his own case - as well as the case of every sick person in the nation of Israel - before his creator.

Each year when I read the words in 'U'Netaneh Tokef'; "Who shall live and who shall die?" I give them only a passing thought. It's just something we say during the long, exhausting holiday services.  I certainly never thought to check if my question was actually being answered. 

But seeing Elroi walk up the center aisle and interrupt the reader I got more than just the answer to last year's question.  I also received the answer to my musings about of whether spontaneous events could be added to the holiday services on our day.  This one will certainly be part of my Yom Kippur service for as long as I live.


Posted by David Bogner on October 3, 2006 | Permalink


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Zahava: My sincere condolences. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You may have actually shifted my thinking on the matter. I'll have to give it more thought. I like the idea that petitionary prayer, far from asking the Holy One to stoop to being our celestial butler, can be simply communicating an important need to a loved one, which we would certainly do with a spouse or parent. We wouldn't expect immediate gratification of our need in either case, but to withhold the communication (even from the Omnicient One) is simply to keep distant.

Wow. I rarely get new insights on this stuff. Thank you.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 5, 2006 5:52:26 PM

Hi Zahava,

Try this and this.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 5, 2006 5:53:02 PM


Thanks for the links. I went back and read the two initial links, and am certain I will go back and read more of the contained links as well.

I find relationships in general tough to describe -- they tend to be forever evolving and morphing into other states... all the more so, do I find it difficult to articulate my feelings on a relationship with a indefinable entity....

Thanks for your insights! Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

Posted by: zahava | Oct 6, 2006 12:44:11 AM

Hi Zahava,

I can agree with that. As it is I am perpetually frustrated with the quality of my writing.

And it is only exacerbated by trying to describe things that are undescribable, if that makes any sense at all.

Good Shabbos and Chag sameach to you as well.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 6, 2006 8:10:24 AM

A very moving post, David! Now, will you stop trying to make me cry? Jeepers!

Posted by: benning | Oct 6, 2006 3:18:48 PM

So happy to hear about young Elroi Rafa'el's ongoing recovery!

Psalm 23 is my all-time favorite too. I had been using this prayer for myself for years, and one day I began directing it toward Israel. I sometimes stand at my window facing the Sandia Mountains to the east, and recite the whole psalm in prayer for G-d's land and G-d's people.

(Spanish) "JAH es tu pastor; nada te faltara..." ("The L-rd is your shepherd; you shall not want...")

Posted by: Dina | Oct 9, 2006 12:05:01 AM

I wish I had read this one earlier. Truly inspiring and uplifting. I am also an avid High Holiday restless-in-my-seat page-flipper. Also really appreciated the comments dialogue among Zahava (I have given up calling for a separate Zahava blog, but can at least appreciate her fine writing and thinking here!), Doctor Bean and Elaine. I have a great deal of difficulty with prescribed prayers, and have also struggled with seemingly unanswered prayers. "God said no" doesn't quell the question for me. After a friend died of cancer, when groups of people on four continents had prayed fervently for his recovery, the words of another friend offered some measure of comfort, "Those prayers did not go to waste. God took them and applied them to something larger, which we did not even know we needed to pray for."

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 5, 2006 5:54:49 AM

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