Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"
A communally-written Al Chet for 5774

New poem for Yom Kippur: We Are Jonah

I'm immersed this week in preparing -- logistically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- for Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Friday night. I'm also working on what has been the project of my heart for the last many months, a new machzor for the Days of Awe, which will be available (God willing) next summer for use next year. (More about that later, when the process of revision and multilingual proofreading is complete!)

As I shift back and forth between preparing for these holidays, and working toward next year's holidays, I've found myself working on a new poem which comes out of the book of Jonah. (It also comes out of a beautiful midrash from the first-century Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, which I cited in last year's sermon In the Belly of the Whale.) If this speaks to you, feel free to use it -- with attribution, of course.


In Rabbi Eliezer's vision
Jonah entered the whale's mouth
as we enter a synagogue.
Light streamed in through its eyes.
Jonah approached the bimah, the whale's head.
Show me wonders, he said, as though
his own life weren't a miracle.

The whale obliged, swimming down
to the foundation stone,
the navel of creation
fixed deep beneath the land.
Tsk tsk, chided the fish:
you're beneath God's temple --
you should pray.

Prayer requires stillness.
Running away had always been
so easy. Sitting silent
in self-judgement -- forget it!
But waves only churn the surface.
In the deep beneath the deep
Jonah was wholly present.

We all flee
from uncomfortable conversations
the drip of a hospital IV
the truths we don't want to own
the work we don't want to do.
Now we're in the belly of the whale,
someplace deep and strange.

God calls us to awareness:
to stand our ground
in the place where we are,
to do the work which needs doing.
To bring kindness and mercy
even to those who are unlike us.
Are we listening?