Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yamim Noraim

They're not called the Days of Awe for nothing. The cosmic metaphor of God's own Book - the Book of Life, or the Book of Remembrance - opening for inscription on Rosh Hashanah and being sealed on Yom Kippur - is unbelievably powerful. (Actually, the Book of Life - Sefer Hayyim - is literally the "Scroll of Life," which reminds us that the metaphor was established before the invention of the codex, the bound book with pages.) The wishes of the day (Rosh Hashanah) are surprisingly deterministic for a people who usually don't believe in either predestination or an interventionist God. "May you be inscribed for a good year." I think it's a sign of something in my journey into Judaism that some of these prayers, which only come round once a year, are beginning to have the visceral pull for me that some of the hymns of my childhood still have, despite my deliberate departure from Christianity. I find I'm developing a top ten list. So, currently in the running for Favorite High Holy Days Prayer, we have, in no particular order:

  • Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v'chanun (the Covenant)
  • Ki Anu Amecha (We are your people)
  • Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King)
  • Zochreinu L'Chayim (Remember us for life)

I think there will be more as the Days progress.

The other thought I had came during the services for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading is the story of Sarah's miraculous pregnancy and the birth of Isaac (and, more uncomfortably, of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael), while the Haftarah is the story of Chana's prayers and the birth of Samuel. Rather a collection of barren women. I chose Chana as a Hebrew name, not realizing I was going to end up with the Hebrew equivalent of "Jane Doe" (Chana bat Avraham v'Sarah), because I liked her attitude: she's one of the first women of the Bible to pray on her own behalf, to talk to God on her own account. Even though her husband, remarkably for their time and place, does not hold her barrenness against her, she goes to the temple to petition for a child, and the result is the prophet Samuel. At the time I was thinking of Chana's prayer as a kind of active religious commitment that could stand against the traditions that say that women don't have to say the prayers, go to the services, read the Torah, but can just stay home and raise children and cook for the men. In too many contexts that exemption became a prohibition, and women were barred from many aspects of observance. So I identified with Chana for her independence of faith, and for her voice raised in prayer. But now, of course, it's Chana's inability to bear a child that is making me think. I don't want to take from her the simplistic lesson "just pray and God will give you a child," because it's never that simple, and sometimes prayers go unanswered for reasons we can't understand. Anyway I'm much more capable of understanding the workings of reproductive medicine than prayer, though we're certainly trying both approaches. So what is the lesson of Chana? Don't give up hope? I can't reasonably do as she did and promise to dedicate my firstborn son to the service of the (now nonexistent) Temple, even if I wanted to (and what's with that "and no razor shall touch the hair of his head?"). Eli thought Chana was drunk, having heard her muttering her prayers. I think possibly the lesson is "keep praying out loud, no matter what people think of you." We'll see how it goes.


Melinda said...

I heard a sermon from a minister who commented on a prayerful epiphany she had during her drive through a long stretch of desert: "There is great beauty in the desert, if you only stop and notice it." For what that's worth...

SEB said...

And the truth is, I love deserts.