Cutting the beautiful liturgy of Yom Kippur down to seventy-five minutes has left me feeling like a criminal perpetrating an assault.
There have been several appeals against the knife:
‘You know the prayer “Ve’avitah tehilah, Yet You seek praise”? Put it back!’
In this case I agree and duly attempt to translate the short passage which contains just thirty-five words and the meaning of our lives:
Yet you seek praise from flesh and blood…from a passing shadow, a mere mortal, whose time is finite, whose life expires, whose consciousness departs, whose unique soul flies away.
The whole of life, its wonder, tasks and brevity, are in this meditation. I still hear Leslie Lyndon singing it in my head. The memory transports me to the cemetery where so many of our community now lie. I wander among them in my mind, recalling the inscriptions and the love to which they point. One can’t write one’s heart out on a stone.
We too will lie in the ground
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees. (Wordsworth: The Lucy Poems)
So what can it mean that God, Chai Olamim, ‘who lives for ever, life of all worlds,’ desires praises from us? To praise, one must appreciate what it is one’s praising. How can we even know that such transcendent, trans-mortal life is?
I can only say that sometimes, rarely, precisely in the moment when I sense my smallness, I feel myself awoken to immensity. Caught, held still between fear and wonder, I am silenced by this awareness: it’s not mine, this consciousness. It, and I, belong to something other, something beyond dimensions, the cutting edges of space and time. The life which is forever flows through my mind, is my very breath.
Mortal, yet privileged to know the immortal: it is this which makes us sing.
This is the song of the heart. But there is also the song of deeds. Eternity has entrusted us with now, just one moment, but critical, decisive, in its unfolding. What must we do with these brief gifts of capacity and time, the years when we have power in the world? For this privilege is also commandment.
Nic Schlagman, whose grandmother came with the Kindertransport, and who grew up in our community, said when we discussed Isaiah’s plea to ‘feed the hungry and bring the oppressed poor home’ that he heard an inner call to make his life service.
It comes to us all, in different voices. We may hear it from children, or refugees; from people who’re ill, or in pain; in the silence of songbirds; from the threatened desolation of the earth. But the call is always the same. It’s God’s words to Adam: ‘Where are you?’ There is only one good answer: I am here.
Not just our songs but our actions are the praises God wants from us who, in this mortal hour, hold power over the destiny of so much hope and beauty.
The words are in our sadly shortened liturgy for all of us to put into our consciousness and deeds.
May we be granted a Chatimah Tovah, to be sealed, and to help to seal our beleaguered world, in the book of life.