I haven’t always been a fan of the High Holiday service. It can run long and has a lot of rote recitation. For me it lacked resonance when saying prayers written by rabbis and poets of millennia past.
That changed in 2001 when I experienced, as we all did, the Days of Awe as the days after 9/11.
The words of the service took on new relevance for me, particularly the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer, which begins with the invitation: “Let us acknowledge the power of this day.” As our cantor read the words that tell us that on these days it is inscribed and sealed “who will live and who will die … who before their time … who by fire,” he—and our entire congregation—wept openly. This was no longer a thousand-year-old plea but rather an articulation of the pain we were grappling to understand together.
In the years since, I have continued to find meaning in the way this prayer intersects with the world we live in and the realities we face. In 2005, “who by water … who by storm, who will wander … and who will be harried” evoked both friends and strangers dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This year I’m particularly drawn to those very first words of the prayer: “LET US…” Us – it takes all of us to acknowledge the power of the day. We use plural language here and throughout our liturgy, to signify community. Our reflection on the past and articulation of hopes and dreams for the future is both personal and collective.
This past year our community came together time and again to express anguish and give voice to hope. Last fall, we gathered during the attack on Israel from Gaza, two thousand strong, with Governor Patrick and our civic partners, to express our hope for a safe and secure Jewish state living in peace. In the spring, we came together in a post- Marathon interfaith gathering with President Obama to heal and to renew our strength as one Boston. In standing as one we acknowledged the power of these moments as one unified community.
The resilience and strength of our Jewish community comes through the deep network of organizations and synagogues we have built over generations, a network capable of uniting for the common good. Our ability to act in partnership with others in civic life comes through the deep ties we continue to build, across lines of faith and ethnicity, in pursuit of common values and aspirations.
All of us who are a part of JCRC can be proud of what we achieved together this past year, not only in these powerful public dramas, but in quieter moments throughout the course of the year. With the continued support of CJP and all of our leaders we have supported thousands of volunteers engaged in service; we’ve achieved resounding successes on Beacon Hill though our advocacy; we have been privileged to coordinate community partnerships in Dnepropetrovsk and Haifa; and, we have spoken with a strong voice in the public square in support of Israel and our Jewish values.
As we look forward we are mindful that just as the strength of our community to do this work has been built over generations, so too the opportunities ahead will unfold through years of dedication and our renewed effort together for and on behalf of our community.
During the U’Netaneh Tokef, the congregation declares that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah will ease the hardship of the decree!” In Jewish tradition we perceive repentance not only as reflection on things past but also a deep commitment to make things right going forward. We understand prayer as lifting our voices high and, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “praying with our feet,” embracing service and action. In our tzedakah we commit ourselves to a philanthropy rooted in the word tzedek or “justice,” and an approach to our giving that seeks a better world.
When I say these words this season I will look forward with hope and excitement, ready to pray with my feet and, together with you, to build a community and a world that represents our shared values.
Thank you for joining with JCRC in this important work.
Wishing you a good and sweet New Year. Shanah Tova U’Metukah.
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