It's the middle of Tammuz (and just past the middle of July) so why am I thinking about the High Holy Days? There are, of course, the obvious reasons. Synagogue Choirs have started practicing for the High Holy Days. Other preparations are underway. You might think that a synagogue professional's load slows down in the summer, but the stark reality is that the many preparations for the High Holy Days occupy much of the summertime days.
Even though the High Holy Days come late this year--no, scratch that--let's try again. Even though the High Holy Days occur later in the secular calendar this year (there, that's better) plans are well underway. (There's also that wonderful side benefit that has Jewish educators and teachers excited--that rare opportunity to actually have a few classes before the High Holidays so that we can actually teach about them in advance.)
Yet this is not why the High Holy Days are on my mind. It's because of the hafatarah for this week's parasha, Pinkhas. The hafatarah comes from I Kings chapter 18. It picks up the story of Elijah right after Elijah has seen to the slaughter of the prophets of Ba'al and Asherah after his confrontation with them at Mount Carmel, in which G"d's power is so starkly demonstrated. Elijah flees from King Ahab, whose wife Jezebel has sent Elijah a note that she intends to see Elijah killed for what he has done. (As background, Ahab had taken yet one step further in leading Israel astray as his father and predecessors had done. He married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, and worshipped her god Ba'al, and even had a temple erected to Ba'al in Samaria. Elijah the prophet harangues and troubles Ahab, and eventually challenges the prophets of Ba'al to a "contest" between their "god" and G"d.)
Elijah is so frightened, he flees into the wilderness, where he asks G"d to take his life. An angel comes to Elijah and manifests food for the starving and tired Elijah. The word of G"d comes to Elijah when he goes to sleep in a cave. Elijah tells G"d that he alone is left of G"d's prophets to chastise Ahab and Israel for forsaken their covenant. G"d then asks Elijah to "step outside" and stand before G"d. A great wind blows, splitting rocks and mountains. Yet G"d was "lo b'ruakh" -- not in the wind. Then an earthquake. Yet G"d was "lo ha'ra'ash" -- not in the earthquake. Fire follows earthquake, and again, G"d was "lo ba'eish" - not in the fire. Then, after the fire, a "kol d'mamah dakah" --a voice, silent and thin. As some translate, a "soft murmuring sound." Or, more eloquently, "a still, small voice."
I have mused upon this theme many times--the idea that we are all looking for the big miracle, the splitting asunder of the sea, fire and thunder from the mountain, and, as a result, we miss the everyday miracles all around us. Amid the hubbub of modern life we try to listen for G"d's voice. Yet all too rarely do we take the time to isolate ourselves from the din, so that we can truly hear a "kol d'mamah dakah."
A 12th century manuscript attributed to a German Rabbi, Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, relates the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a great rabbi who lived about a thousand years ago, just before the crusades began. The bishop of Mainz insisted that Rabbi Amnon renounce his faith and become a Christian. Rabbi Amnon repeatedly refused. Perhaps frustrated by the continuing effort, and aware of the approach High Holy Days, Rabbi Amnon asks the Bishop to grant him three days to think things over, which the Bishop does. Rabbi Amnon immediately regrets having left the Bishop and others with the impression he would even consider renouncing G"d and Judaism. After three days, Rabbi Amnon refuses to go to the Bishop when summoned, and so he is forcibly taken. He asks that his tongue be cut out for even saying he would consider renouncing G"d, but the Bishop said he was more irate for what the Rabbi's legs had done, or rather not done, in not returning when summoned. Whereupon Rabbi Mainz is subjected to having his limbs chopped off, piece by piece, refusing each time to convert. Then the Rabbi was sent home, along with his cut-off limbs. Shortly after, when Rosh Hashanah has come, Rabbi Mainz asks his family to bring him to the synagogue, even broken and bloody as he was. Just before the kedushah, the sanctification, was about to be said by the Hazzan, Rabbi Amnon asks the Hazzan to stop so that Rabbi Amnon might sanctify G"d's name. Rabbi Amnon says "Thus to our sanctification prayer shall ascend, for You, our G"d, are King." He then proceeds to create and recite the "unetaneh tokef" prayer on the spot, after which he dies and disappears. Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appears in a vision to Rabbi Kalonimos ben Meshullam, another great sage of Mainz, and teaches him the words of the unetaneh tokef and instructs that it be added to the liturgy and taught to all Jews everywhere. Or so the story goes.
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one that many find discomforting. It is the one that contains that "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die; who by fire and who by water..." etc. But...as the prayer reminds us at the end "repentance, prayer and tzedakah shall temper the severe decree."
At the beginning of the prayer, the holiness and awesomeness of this day is declared, along with G"d's greatness and sovereignty. G"d is recognized as the One who judges and hold us to account. Then this prayer, already imbued with brilliant poetic language and imagery, tell us "the great shofar is sounded, and a thin voice of stillness is heard." Uv'shofar gadol yitaka, v'kol d'mamah dakah yish'ma.
Think about it. A loud noise is made, but that is not what we hear. It is the still, small voice that we hear. It is not in the majesty and pomp that have come to characterize our High Holy Days services that G"D is to be heard. It is in the silences. Now, this could be a rather frustrating for those who, like me, are directing choirs for the High Holy Days. Yet I take comfort in knowing that the Unetaneh Tokef prayer shows us that we must still make the great sound. Can one truly recognize the silence wherein we might find G"d if there is no noise with which to contrast it? Even G"d finds it necessary to precede the "thin voice of stillness" with wind and rain and thunder and earthquake and fire.
And so, while this week's haftarah might teach us about the "kol d'mamah dakah" -- that G"d is to be found in the silence, we should also learn that, like all things in Judaism, there is a balance. This Shabbat, why not use the hubbub and brouhaha of the week as the shofar that calls your attention to the need to listen for G"d in the still, small voices that can often be found on Shabbat--sometimes only during Shabbat. Greet the Shabbat Bride with loud song, like the sound of the great shofar. Then listen for the rustlings of her bridal gown, and strive to hear G"d's voice within.
©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!
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