Who Shall Live and Who Shall Cry

I have always had trouble staying focused in synagogue. All too often I put my prayer book aside and pick up a volume of Talmud, or even a novel, and read instead of praying. Somewhat surprisingly, my prayer life has improved since I’ve had children. When I’m already so distracted in synagogue, I don’t need to seek out additional distractions, and so ironically I concentrate better with my children underfoot. These days I generally don’t even bother bringing a novel to synagogue anymore, since what is the likelihood I’ll have a chance to open the prayer book, let alone all my ancillary reading material?

This year on Rosh Hashanah, though, it was different. Daniel and I prayed in a synagogue that had two services, one at 5:30am and the other at 8am – and so each of us had our turn to pray. The kids sat with us for parts of both services and managed to hear the shofar blasts on multiple occasions, but for the most part we were each alone. In fact, I think my four hours in synagogue each morning was the only time I spent alone during the entire Rosh Hashanah holiday – and so, yes, I brought reading material.

I was reading a newly-published Hebrew novel about a young couple in their first year of marriage. Their names are Yonatan and Alisa, they are deeply in love, and they are desperate for time alone– but everyone around them seems to be competing for their attention. The book was very absorbing, and although I didn’t pick it up until I’d completed the long silent prayer, I found it hard to tear myself away by the time the prayer leader got up to the U’netaneh Tokef, a stirring liturgical poem in which we ask, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?” The prayer is attributed to a medieval rabbi who, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, was told by the local Catholic authorities that he must either convert or die. He chose death, but only after hesitating – which then caused him tremendous guilt and remorse. According to the legend, he composed the U’netaneh Tokef and recited it with his last breath.

The prayer is by no means the most important part of the high holiday liturgy – it is included in the prayer book as a poetic introduction to the Kedusha, the blessing in which all the angels proclaim God’s glory. But because of its weighty imagery and its haunting melody, it has become one of the centerpieces of the high holiday prayers. And so I probably ought to have put aside my novel and opened my prayer book again – except that I couldn’t. Alisa, four months pregnant, was panicking. She thought she was having another miscarriage. Suddenly we were transported back six months earlier, to the trauma of Alisa’s first miscarriage – the blood, the rush to the hospital, the ultrasound with no heartbeat, the tears. Was it all about to happen again? Alisa was crying. Yonatan was crying. And suddenly I was crying too, bawling into my novel which was hidden inside my prayer book, the tears falling freely onto its pages. I felt like I was right there with Yonatan and Alisa, experiencing their devastation first-hand.

Except, of course, I wasn’t right there. I was standing in synagogue before the Holy Ark on Judgment Day, and everyone around me was crying too. “On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. Who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who will experience tranquility and who will suffer.” Surely several of the people around me had lost those they loved in the past year, or were worried about losing loved ones in the year ahead. They were worried about their parents or their children, or their financial security, or the difficult decisions that might have to make in the year ahead. They felt their lives hanging in the balance. They were crying in hope, or in fear, or in anguish. Whereas I was crying for Yonatan and Alisa.

For a moment I felt guilty. I remembered the midrash in which God criticizes the Israelites for crying out of fear when they heard the ten spies’ negative report about the land of Israel. “You’re crying for no reason?” said God angrily. “Well, just you wait. I’ll give you a real reason to cry.” On that day, the decree of the Temple’s destruction was sealed (Taanit 29a). Maybe God was going to punish me with a real reason to cry, instead of my crocodile tears. Except that they weren’t really crocodile tears, because I wasn’t just crying for Yonatan and Alisa. I was reminded of a favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about a man who espies a young girl crying:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

The poet, a somewhat patronizing older man, asks Margaret why she is crying. “Are you crying because the leaves are falling from the trees? What a sensitive heart you have, crying for the foliage.” The poet knows that the leaves will fall every autumn and fill the trees again every spring, but perhaps Margaret—like Adam HaRishon—does not yet have the confidence that the sun always rises. Perhaps the branches will be forever bare? And even if the trees will bloom again in the spring, how sad that they are falling now!

The poet tells Margaret that she will have many more real reasons to cry when she gets older:

Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.

The mansplaining continues, but now with new levels of profundity:

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

The poet tells Margaret that she will cry many times throughout her life, but when it comes down to it, she will always be crying about the same thing: “Sorrow’s springs are all the same.” When we human beings cry, the poet is telling Margaret, we are not just crying for any single loss. We are crying for the human condition, for the “blight that man was born for” – for how difficult it is to live in a world of transience and imperfection, where so much of what we love is fleeting, and where so many of our dreams fall short.

Crying for Yonatan and Alisa is like crying for Goldengrove unleaving. Do I really need to cry about fictional characters who suffered an imagined loss? Does Margaret really need to cry for the falling leaves? The poet’s answer is that it doesn’t really matter. The wellsprings of sorrow are all the same. We cry because we live in a world where leaves fall from trees and turn to smoke in every lane, where babies die in the womb, where parents get sick and need to be cared for, where children go to sleep hungry, where we do not always feel equipped to confront life’s challenges with dignity and grace. We cry because the blight that man was born for is to come from dust and return to dust. Each of us is a broken shard. A passing shade. A dissipating cloud. A vanished dream. Each of us, Margaret, is a falling leaf.

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