Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Who by Fire - Revisited

Leonard Cohen in 1988 (Wikipedia)
The late singer-composer, Leonard Cohen was by all accounts not an observant Jew. But I believe that at some level he had a deep and abiding faith in God. I say that because it is reflected in some of his music. The most prominent of which has been recorded many times by many different recording artists. It is based on events recorded in Tanach.  

For me, Leonard Cohen’s most powerful composition is a song called, Who by Fire. I featured a few years ago at this time of year. But recent events have caused me to think about it again.   

This composition is obviously based on Nesaneh Tokef, one of the most poignant  prayers of the season recited shortly before Kedusha of Musaf on both days of Rosh Hashanah and the day of Yom Kippur.

The story of who composed it… when, how, and why - is by itself a gut wrenching exercise in Teshuva. According to legend* that composer was R’ Amnon of Mainz, Germany who composed it under what must have been the most excruciating pain imaginable. He was literally sliced to bits by a bishop that tried to convert him.

The final section of Nesaneh Tokef mostly lists the many ways in which one can die and is recited on the days we pray God grants us a year of life and good health (among other things). On Rosh Hashanah our fate for the coming year is recorded - so to speak - by God. And on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed. We pray that in the event that we were not granted a positive outcome on Rosh Hashanah, that it be changed into a positive one on Yom Kippur. After hearing the Chazan chant it, we declare in unison: that Teshuva (repentance of sin), Tefilah (sincere prayer) and Tzedaka (charity) removes the evil decree.

Although it is not an exact translation and has a few additions, Cohen does a magnificent job in evoking its message. Which is that we are all fragile human beings subject to the will of God. And that we could all die at any moment in a variety of painful ways. We are not really in control. No matter how much we think we are.  As my recent bicycle accident has shown me.

I broke four ribs, and had a pneumothorax (partially collapsed lung).  It was a freak accident. Although I am a bit of a ‘speed demon’ on my bike, I ride it defensively, always assuming the worst and taking the appropriate precautions. But when I banked right on a right turn, the bike over-tilted. My pedal hit the pavement; I lost control, and hit the pavement hard. I thought I had control. But God showed me otherwise.

The pain was severe. I had never experienced that level of pain before. A trip to the emergency room ended up with being admitted for observation (mostly because of the pneumothorax). Thankfully, my lung situation improved considerably overnight and I was released. The pain, however, was still pretty severe. There was nothing I could do to stop it, no matter what position I took sitting, standing, or lying down.

For the first few days, the pain was so strong, that I could not get out of bed or get dressed without my wife’s help. A few days later came Rosh Hashanah and I barely made it to Shul just to hear the Shofar (first set of Tekiyos - just before Musaf). I listened in pain, and then went home.

Since then I have been steadily improving and although I still have some pain, it is more tolerable. I no longer need help getting out of bed or getting dressed. I hope to be in Shul for the entire day tomorrow. We shall see.

Back to Who by Fire. My ordeal was nothing compared to what happened to another young member of the Chicago Jewish community. I don’t know him personally. But this is what happened a couple of days ago. After having recently celebrated the birth of twins, tragedy struck him. A freak cooking accident gave him severe facial burns. He has been hospitalized and as of yesterday his situation was so dire that a name was added. 

I have no idea whether he is conscious. But I hope he isn’t. Because the pain and suffering of that kind of burn is unimaginable. I cannot get him out of my mind. I pray his pain and suffering end quickly; that he has a Refuah Shelaima B’Karov - a complete and quick recovery and that this young husband, father, and son gets his life back.   

May we all merit to be sealed in the ‘Book of Life’ in complete health – both physical and mental.

G’mar Chasima Tova 

*Apparently, Nesaneh Tokef  was found in the Cairo Genizah - which predates both R' Amnon and the city of Mainz itself. So this story which is printed in many versions of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Machzor is likely inaccurate - to say the least. Perhaps as one reader suggests it was R' Amnon that had it inserted into the liturgy but did not compose it himself.