As we are just days away from Yom Kippur, my mind goes to three places: the prayer, the parrot, and the rabbi. I am speaking very specifically about one prayer, one parrot and one rabbi. In general, I am a big fan of prayer. I believe it works the way the Hebrew verb ‘lehitpalel’ tells us –it is a reflexive verb, so it will be an action that moves from me outward, only to reflect back onto me again. Prayer works when it shows me something about myself I’m ready to see, because I spoke it outwardly where I could look at it. Brilliant! Except for one prayer in particular, usually referred to as “Who by Fire”. For me, that’s a prayer that triggers my inner fear and helplessness.
Here are the words:
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at an extreme and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by natural and widespread catastrophe and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
You can’t help but ask yourself ‘who wants to go to shul ever again?’ It strikes terror into our awareness of human frailty.
And then my mind goes to the parrot. The story of that one parrot who won’t stop swearing. No matter what its owner does, all the parrot wants to do is curse its owner with the most foul and offensive language imaginable. The parrot was an inherited gift and came to the owner already knowing these curses and simply won’t give them up. One day, the owner decides he can’t take it anymore, he needs to punish the parrot and maybe fear of the punishment will make the parrot stop. Since parrots come from hot climates, the owner decides to put the parrot into the freezer for a few minutes and maybe the parrot will get the message. The owner puts it into the freezer and shuts the door. He hears the parrot squawking and cursing, and after about a minute, there is silence. The owner opens the freezer and the parrot immediately apologizes to the owner profusely and vows never to curse again. The owner says he forgives the parrot but the parrot wants to ask the owner a question. ‘Of course’, said the owner. The parrot looks at the owner and asks, ‘what did the chicken do?’
For me, that is ‘who by fire’ — life and destiny can scare me into compliance and obedience but too much of Jewish text tells me to challenge myself to explore a deeper relationship than fear.
And so, I turn to a verse we use often in prayer, and during Yom Kippur: “Hashivenu Adonai ve-nashuva” – “Cause us to return, God, and we will return to You”. Judaism teaches us that we are involved in a covenant with God, two partners committed to the same relationship. When I see my partner behaving a certain way I will respond. When I feel the distance, I turn to my partner and ask that my partner pull me back.
There is a powerful story of a Chassidic rabbi who would stop teaching his students in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When asked why, he would say that he is preparing for Yom Kippur day and night and therefore can’t teach. His students would watch him through his window as he wrote and wrote, filling pages with his writings. One student courageously asked him how these writings prepare him for Yom Kippur. The rabbi said that first he makes a list of everything he’s committed himself to in the last year and did not fulfil. He puts all those pages in one pile. Then he goes through the Tanakh and makes a list of all the things God committed to do and didn’t do. He puts those pages in another pile. The rabbi tells his student that on Yom Kippur he will read both lists over and over. At the end of the day, before the shofar sounds, the rabbi turns to God and says, ‘You forgive me and I forgive You’.
On Yom Kippur we stand with our Divine Partner and present our best case. There will be moments when we must acknowledge how frightening life can be and how frail we truly are (who by fire and who by freezer)…and then we get back to being the strong and committed partners we are trusted to be.
May this year bring everyone, everywhere, health, safety, joy, and a future of new opportunities!