“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die. Who by fire and who by water . . . The “U’nateneh Tokef” prayer.is one of the highlights of the High Holiday liturgy, but also one of the most paradoxical, because fire and water, like many things in our lives, are elements that have immense powers beyond our control…They have the power to do good and the power to cause harm.
Who by fire and who by water? Leonard Cohen, one of the most Jewish of Jewish songwriters who passed away during the Jewish year just ended, took the prayer and turned it into one of his most moving and well known songs. Why fire and why water?
The Hebrew word for fire is “esh” and the word for water is “mayim.” The word for the heavens is “shamayim” -- bereshit bara elohim et ha shamayim v’et ha-aretz-- in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. According to Rashi, basing himself in the Talmud, God called the heavens “shamayim” because it was created from fire and water -- esh and mayim yielding “shamayim.” God mingled them together and that’s how God created the heavens. Rashi teaches us that fire and water are basic building blocks of creation.
Water is a basic element of life -- we can’t live without it. People will fight and die for it. Control of water is one of the main, if unacknowledged, sources of conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
And what is true of water is also true of fire. Anthropologists tell us that making and controlling fireis a uniquely human activity, and this may be why according to the Greek myth of Prometheus, it was necessary to steal fire from Mt. Olympus so that human beings could be created and survive.
We cannot survive without water, nor can we survive without fire. If either fire or water gets away from us and spreads uncontrollably, it becomes not an aid to life but a source of destruction and even death. The same elements that we can’t live without, can also kill us if there is too much in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the day before Rosh Hashanah, my friend Rabbi Michael Feshbach, until recently of this area but now the rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, was interviewed in the Washington Post. He said about this prayer: “This is a prayer that’s chilling to anyone . . .It makes everyone confront morality and mortality. There are those who take this prayer very literally…”
The Post wrote that “he had time to ponder it. For 20 minutes at the height of the storm, water seeped into their closet refuge. But then it stopped, the winds abated, and the Feshbachs emerged to see the island transformed. Windows blown out. Trees uprooted. Boats and cars tossed about.”
On Yom Kippur 2004 Keleigh and I experienced what it’s like to live through a hurricane in the Caribbean. It was my fourth and final High Holiday season with the Nassau Jewish Congregation and Hurricane Jeanne hit the Bahamas as well as Florida. Because I was employed full time at a think tank in Baltimore, Keleigh and I always went down to Nassau for Rosh Hashanah, returned home, and then went back again for Yom Kippur. With the hurricane on the way the congregation offered me the option of not coming down for Yom Kippur, but we said “if the planes are flying and the airport is open, we’ll come.” And so we did.
On the taxi ride from the airport to the borrowed house where we stayed, the sea was rough like nothing I had ever seen. The congregational leadership and I paid close attention to the specific forecast for Nassau and made the decision that we would hold Kol Nidre services as well as afternoon/Neila services, and move Yizkor to the afternoon, but not hold morning services.
Our experience during the hurricane wasn’t as scary as Rabbi Feshbach’s but it was plenty scary just the same. It was the first and only time I prayed by myself on Yom Kippur morning since I was probably ten years old. The words “who by water” took on new meaning, because at the height of the storm, water started coming into the house where we were staying. It came under the front door and we were afraid that it might break it down and cause the house to really flood. We were told that during the highest winds, we were safer in an interior room without any windows; but with water coming in the front door we thought maybe we were better off on the second floor, even if that meant we would be in a room with windows. It was hard to know what to do, because the situation was really out of our control and there might not really be a right answer. But the house didn’t flood, the storm calmed, and by late afternoon conditions were safe enough for us to end Yom Kippur according to plan.
We continue to hear stories on the news about the devastating effects of recent hurricanes and fires. And yet, Rashi tells us that the heavens are created from fire and water.
Fire and water are Rashi’s building blocks for heaven, and they figure prominently in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, but they are also both used as metaphors for the Torah. Isaiah in several places calls the Torah “mayim hayyim, the water of life.” At the very end of Deuteronomy, Moses calls the Torah “esh dat” -- a fiery law -- and many of you may be familiar with the Orthodox outreach organization Aish HaTorah -- the fire of the Torah.
This duality is what I think makes “who by fire and who by water?” so powerful. There are a lot of things in this world that we, as human beings, have been hard-wired for millennia to be afraid of. But most of them are possible to avoid or at least stay away from. We’re afraid of lions, and there are enough stories of humans confronting lions both in the Bible and in Greco-Roman mythology, to understand that human-lion encounters did happen more than occasionally in ancient days. But most of us can live very happily without ever dealing with lions. We can live without them. We don’t bring them into our home and try to domesticate them. But we can’t live without fire and we can’t live without water. We need them. They are foundational. We have no choice but to bring them into our home, and by and large we’ve succeeded in domesticating them, but sometimes they get away from us, with deadly and terrifying results.
If fire and water are so terrifying and so deadly, why are they metaphors for the Torah and for religion generally which is life-giving and benevolent? I think that they are precisely the right metaphors. In both fire/water and in the Torah, there are strong forces at play within each element that seem contradictory but coexist nonetheless.
We don’t often acknowledge it, but religion, while life-enriching, can indeed also be deadly. There is the puzzling account of the deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu towards the beginning of the book of Leviticus, where we are told that they took “strange fire which they were not commanded” into the Holy of Holies. The fire consumed them and they died -- and new rules were given to the Levites so that this tragedy would not be repeated.
Commentators for millennia have struggled over the precise meaning of this story, but one thing is certainly clear. While religion done right can be a tremendous source of blessing, religion done wrong is a deadly business. Think of all the wars which have been fought over religion. Think of the persecutions our people endured for being of a different religion than their rulers. Think of the Rohingya Muslims of Burma even today being forced to flee for their lives in fear of the Buddhist majority. Think of how religion in this country continues to be an excuse to deny LGBT people their human rights.
When we embrace the Torah, we embrace a life of paradox. Fire and water kill us. Fire and water give us life. And of course, water puts out fire -- but fire evaporates water.
Paradox is embedded into the very words of Unetaneh Tokef. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed .. who shall live and who shall die ... who by fire and who by water.” One of the key themes of Yom Kippur is acknowledging and accepting the fact that there are things in life which, try as we might, we simply cannot control. We can exercise and eat the right foods and still get sick. We can have the most sophisticated safety features and alarms and security devices and still suffer accidents and thefts. We can do all the right market research and still buy the wrong stock or invest in the wrong product. We can do all the demographic research and build where we think the Jewish community will be in 20 years, only to find out that they’ve moved to a different area. We can move from the DC suburbs to a tropical paradise, as my friend Rabbi Feshbach did, only to see our home destroyed and have to “move” the Jewish holidays due to curfews and lack of power, or to be forced to be very creative with Yom Kippur services because all of the machzorim have been destroyed by flood.
The concept of control is as paradoxical as fire and water. Accepting that sometimes we are powerless is very counter cultural for us as Americans. As Americans, we are heir to the legacy that says that we can do anything we set our minds too if we just work hard enough. John F. Kennedy could announce in 1961 that we would land an astronaut on the moon and return him safely within ten years -- even though no one at the time had any idea how this could be accomplished -- and we beat the timeline by eight years.
And yet believing that we can do anything, that we are all-powerful, is idolatry. It can distort our vision and our priorities, it can lead us to idolize our own power and our own achievements, and it can lead us to believe that those who are less fortunate are simply less deserving or not as hard working.
Accepting that we are not always in control can help us to judge others more favorably. It can also help us to judge ourselves more favorably; and one of the great sources of suffering that I have seen in 31 years as a rabbi, is people being extremely and unfairly critical of themselves as well as of others.
But accepting that certain things are beyond our control could also lead us to passivity. While we need to accept that not everything is within our control, that doesn’t mean that it’s the case that nothing is in our control.
And here is where Unateneh Tokef is at its most paradoxical. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who shall be rich and who shall be poor, who shall be content and who shall suffer. We pass before God like a flock of sheep passing under the staff of the shepherd, we plead for God to have mercy and compassion.
But after saying that “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed . . . who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water” the prayer goes on to say that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah ma’avirin et ro-ah ha g’zeira” – as our Mahzor translates it, “can remove the severity of the decree.” The new Rabbinical Assembly machzor, which we do not yet use, translates it entirely differently. With Teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah -- which it leaves untranslated –we have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
While we often don’t control what happens to us, we do have the ability to choose how we respond.
Teshuvah. A few years ago I shared with you the stories of three people or families I know. One of these stories was that of Mark Borovitz. When he was fourteen his father died and his world changed. From a nice Jewish middle class boy he became a drunkard, a con man, a thief. He spent twenty years as a petty criminal. The mob put a contract out on him. He went to jail.
Even after his release, he continued in this lifestyle until one day he realized that this is not the way God wanted him to live. He helped to found Beit Teshuvah, the House of Teshuvah, a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles for addicts of all kinds. He went back to school and became a Conservative rabbi, and is now the rabbi at Beit Teshuvah. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Tefillah. Mordechai Liebling and Dvora Bartnoff were both rabbis. We became friends while we were studying at the same time but in different rabbinical schools in Jerusalem. Their third child, a son, was named Lior, which means “my light.” Lior had Down syndrome.
When Lior was six, Dvora died of cancer. Mordechai raised Lior and his older brother and sister as a single parent, but his community was an important part of their lives as well. Eventually Mordechai remarried and the family dynamics became even more complicated. Lior may have Down syndrome but he loves to pray and he prays with abandon, to the point that he became known in Philadelphia as the “little rebbe.”
The preparations around Lior’s Bar Mitzvah became the award-winning documentary “Praying with Lior.” The film seems to demonstrate that Lior’s love of prayer and tradition is his way of bonding with his late mother. He cannot of course bring her back, but even with Down syndrome he can perpetuate her legacy. And through the film, he may well have reached more people with his message of God’s love than she did in her too-brief rabbinic career. Praying with Lior -- tefilla. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
Tzedakah. From Lior to Liora. In the spring of 1996, the life of my friend and student Liora Natelson was cut tragically short. Working for the Jewish National Fund as its West Coast director of young leadership, she had lead a trip to Israel and stopped in New York on the way home. She went rollerblading with some friends in Central Park and for whatever reason she chose not to wear a helmet. A bicycle rider collided with her, she hit her head on a curb, and instantly she was brain dead. She was removed from life support a couple of days later, and I officiated at her funeral.
Her parents decided that the best way to memorialize Liora was to create, through the JNF where she had worked, a Memorial Forest in her honor just outside Tzfat. Today it is known by Tzfat residents simply as “Liora” as in, let’s go have a picnic at Liora. Her parents Jay and Miriam turned Liora’s death into the gift of nature and recreation for the people of Northern Israel. Tzedakah. The power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die. Who by fire and who by water. So how do we work within the constraints of powerful external forces to create Teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah – to transform our lives? We indeed have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny. Let us acknowledge the good and bad forces of the waters and fires in our lives so that we can be inscribed in the book of life in the days of awe and those beyond. Gmar Chatima Tova.