The sun is setting. An unnatural hush has descended over the streets. Cars are absent from them, having been parked an hour earlier. People are eating the last meal before the fast, then heading for the synagogue, mostly wearing white clothes, the men with prayer shawls on their shoulders, walking in the middle of the streets vacated by the cars.
Yom Kippur is, in Jerusalem, at least, a day eagerly awaited by children under bar mitzvah age. It's the one day of the year they can ride their bicycles or use their scooters or roller blades on the streets themselves without fear of being run down. (Actually, there are a few--very few--cars on the street, mainly ambulances or police vehicles, and these are often stoned if they inadvertently stray into any religious area, even when clearly marked as emergency vehicles)The yearly celebration of Non-Motorized Vehicular Traffic Day
is about to begin.
Yom Kippur is a phenomenon outside the normal time of the world. The Orthodox have a bit of this every Shabbat, but on Shabbat one does have clocks one can consult. Technically, we have them on the Day of Atonement, too, but they seem irrelevant. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do, but pray. You don't visit with friends, you don't sit down to eat. You go to shul. Or, for the irreligious, you sleep. You're in God's time, not human time.There's no radio or TV. For some, this is a worse deprivation
than food and drink. By 8:30 in the evening, when the services for Yom Kippur
Eve are over, people are eyeing one another anxiously, wondering how the heck
they will manage to last out the 25-hour period with no other diversion beyond
praying or talking to one another. I bet there are husbands and wives who
actually see each other for the first time in a year on the
The Middle Ages has been called the "Age of Belief". Science requires exactitude, and therefore one has to know exactly where one is in time and space. God's time, however, is more elastic. Its markers are not hours or minutes but events.It occurred to me, reading some of the extremely beautiful,
mystic, and complex piyyutim (liturgical poems), that were written mostly in the
Middle Ages, that this is what it must have been like for everyone, all the
time, back then. Of course, there were various methods, since antiquity, for
telling time and artificial ways of dividing the day into parts. But the average
man did not. He got up with the sun, and went to bed at dark. What wasn't
finished today would be finished tomorrow. Journeys took unknown amounts of
time; one could guess, based on previous trips about approximate arrivals, but
no one could keep to a schedule, or a deadline. It was all "in God's Hands" and
everything happened when it happened.
בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון......
On the New Year will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will
be sealed how many will pass from the hear and how many will be created; who
will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before
his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by
famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and
who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in
haromony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will
suffer, who will be impoverished, and who will be enriched, who will be degraded
and who will be exalted.
(Lest this sound as if it removes all hope of human influence on God's decree, and as a result, takes a very Calvinistic approach to life, the next line of the prayer is: "But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree".)
Paul Johnson, in "History of the Jews" has written about the peculiar relationship of Jews to history. The best book about the Holocaust, Andre Schwarz-Bart's "The Last of the Just" makes just this point. He uses a hassidic legend about the "36 just (righteous; the word is the same in Hebrew) men" in each generation whose hidden suffering hastens the Coming of the Messiah, to create a story about a Jewish family, beginning in the massacre of the Jewish community in York in the 1100s, that is granted the "privilege" of having one of these hidden saints in each generation. The 36th generation member, Ernie Levy, ends up in Auschwitz:The interesting thing about this beautiful prayer, called the
"Utaneh Tokef", is that it was written, as so much else of the High
Holy Day liturgy, during the Middle Ages, specifically during the period of
intense and bloody persecution of the European communities during the Crusades.
The author of this prayer was himself martyred. The melody of "Kol
Nidre" dates from a little later, the period of the Spanish Inquisition;
when Spanish Jews, having been forcibly converted to Catholicism in 1391, could
only practice Judaism in secret. But life for Jews around 1100-1200 had also
been extremely perilous, since many Crusaders decided to deal with the local
"infidels" before going to the Holy Land to deal with the Moslem infidels.Jewish liturgy has very little input from the Holocaust,
possibly because it is so fresh. There is a paragraph in the Yizkor service--the
memorial prayers for the dead--but not much else. The death of ten celebrated
Sages at the hands of the Romans is related, but not those who died in the
concentration camps. But the rabbis of the Middle Ages were composing mystic
poetry contemporaneously with events because they could see in them the
historical perspective, not being limited by clocks delineating human
His eyes still closed, he felt the press of the last
parcels of flesh that the SS men were clubbing into the gas chamber now, and his
eyes still closed he knew that the lights had been extinguished on the living,
on the hundreds of Jewish women suddenly shrieking in terror, on the old men
whose prayers rose immediately and grew stronger, on the martyred children, who
were rediscovering in their last agonies the fresh innocence of yesteryear's
agonies in a chorus of identical exclamations: "Mama! But I was a good boy! It's
dark! It's dark!" And when the first waves of Cyclon B gas billowed among the
sweating bodies, Ernie...leaned out into the darkness toward the children
invisible even at his knees, and he shouted with all the gentleness and all the
strength of his soul, "Breathe deeply, my lambs, and quickly!"When the layers of gas had covered everything, there was
silence in the dark sky of the room for perhaps a minute, broken only by shrill,
racking coughs and the gasps of those too far gone in their agonies to offer a
devotion. And first a stream, then a cascade, an irrepressible, majestic
torrent, the poem that through the smoke of fires and above the funeral pyres of
history the Jews...had traced in letters of blood on the earth's hard
crust--that old love poem unfurled in the gas chamber, enveloped it, vanquished
its somber, abysmal snickering: "SHEMA YISRAEL ADONOI ELOHENU ADONOI
ECHAD...Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. O Lord, by your
grace you nourish the living, and by your great pity you ressurect the dead, and
you uphold the weak, cure the sick, break the chains of slaves. And faithfully
keep your promises to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like unto you, O
merciful Father, and who could be like unto you....?"And then Ernie knew he could do nothing more for anyone
in the world, and in the flash that preceded his own annihilation he remembered,
happily, the legend of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyion [recited on Yom Kippur]: "When the gentle rabbi,
wrapped in the scrolls of the Torah, was flung upon the pyre by the Romans for
having taught the Law, and when they lit the faggots, the branches still green
to make his torture last, his pupils said, 'Master, what do you see?' And Rabbi
Chaninia answered, 'I see the parchment burning, but the letters are taking
wing'"...."Ah yes, surely, the letters are taking wing" Ernie repeated as the
flame blazing in his chest rose suddenly to his head....And so it was for
millions, who turned from Luftmenschen into Luft. I shall not
translate. So this story will not finish with some tomb to be visited in
memoriam. For the smoke that rises from the crematoria obeys physical laws like
any other...the only pilgrimage, estimable reader, would be to look with sadness
at a stormy sky now and then.
And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be.
Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And praised. Sobibor. Be. Chelmno. The Lord. Ponary. And praised.
Theresienstadt. Be. Warsaw. The Lord. Vilna. Yitgadal. Skarzysko. v'yitkadash. Bergen-Belsen. shemay
rabbah. Janow. Yitgadal. Lodz. v'yitkadash. Neuengamme. shemay rabbah. Pustkow....v'imru "ameyn"....
And say, "Amen". It's good to have one day a year, in God's time rather than ours.