I’ve lost count of how many people have tried to explain the Unetaneh Tokef to me.
The central High Holy Days prayer, it imagines God sitting on a lofty throne as the souls of all humanity parade by for judgment, awaiting God’s decision on “who shall live and who shall die.”
Rabbis, scholars, serious lay people – good people, all of them. They offer truckloads of apologetics – “your misunderstanding is a result of” faulty grammar, bad punctuation, changed vocabulary, cultural mistranslations, or some other lack. “If only you’d let go of your literal understanding of the words and let your heart soar with them,” they urge. And I appreciate all of them. Really I do.
But I am an editor, and therefore a literalist, and I am stuck with the words. They are stark and clear. There are many terrible ways to die, they tell us, and a very few good ones, and, oh yes, “repentance, prayer, and righteousness can [or will?] avert the harsh decree.”
Did my 20-year-old daughter die 11 years ago because she was deficient in one of those three categories? Was she more deficient than the rest of us? Did my very dear friend’s 31-year-old son, part of the same Camp Ramah group as my daughter, die this spring of a brain aneurysm because he was?
No? I don’t think so either.
Unetaneh Tokef leaves me nearly prostrate with grief and rage, choked with the mucus that so unbecomingly accompanies grimy tears, every single year. It’s been even worse this year.
That leads to the next argument from my would-be comforters, that God values a broken heart. Here, take mine! Please! No? I didn’t think so.
The truth is that broken hearts can be held together up to a point, but they’re forever spewing little bits of toxic waste into the bloodstream. I end up with little shards all over; sometimes churning in my stomach, sometimes pounding behind my forehead, but most often shoving their needle-sharp way out my tearducts or through my nose. It’s messy, and it hurts.
So what’s the tradeoff for these holy and festive days? What makes them endurable?
It’s the food. (The food and the emotional lability that allows me to flit from grief to hunger with a disconcerting speed.)
It sounds like a very old joke, doesn’t it; the one that always ends “let’s eat”? But it’s true. The elaborate choreography of these many holiday meals – whom to invite, whom not to invite; whom to feed meat, whom not to feed meat; whom to let my cat go near, whom not to let my dog or cats go near – are complex and consuming. You work out your own rules with experience.
I have learned that the most important part is always to have enough wine bottles open and on the table, and always to pour more as soon as the level in a glass goes down. You do end up spilling lots down the sink at the end that way, but there’s nothing like it for signaling that there’s more than enough of everything, and so it’s done its job.
Among many other delights, we had lox for lunch on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. We bought it at Fairway. (I contend that Fairway’s hand-sliced lox is every bit as good as Zabar’s.)
You stand on a special line for hand-sliced lox at Fairway. To wait behind someone else is to exercise a Zen-like patience. It could be hours. When finally it is your turn, you watch as the slicer – almost always a young Hispanic man; this once-dying craft seems to have been resuscitated by a new wave of able and devoted practitioners – runs his hands tenderly down the huge side of salmon, almost as if he were blind and it were Braille. Then he takes his knife and slices with great delicacy, producing a nearly see-through piece of coral or flame or sometimes burnished copper. He holds it up and hangs it from his finger as he examines it. It ripples slightly, as if the energy from his eyes produces a slight draft. It looks like a miniature medieval standard. If there is anything bone-like attached to it, he removes it with tweezers. If it is not satisfactory, he tosses it aside. If it meets with his approval, he lays it down gently on a piece of plastic wrap and starts on the next piece.
If you are planning to feed more than one very thin person, the process takes nearly forever.
So finally you get home, unpack your bounty, and prepare for the holiday.
How do these things – the devastation produced by the liturgy and the joy in small things – go together? I don’t know.
I do know that sentimentalists will tell me that my ability to find beauty in odd places is one of the gifts of a broken heart. I also know that the equivalent would be giving someone Lincoln’s own handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address as a gift, and to get in return gift-wrapped miniature soap and shampoo filched from a hotel room. Not exactly a fair trade.
I don’t know how they coexist. I only know that they do, and that every year I have to face it again. Every year, something shifts. Maybe some year the shift will nudge the pieces into a pattern that make sense.
Until then, there’s always the lox.