Rosh Hashanah Readings (2015)

Yom Kippur Sonnet, with a Line from Lamentations

by Jacqueline Osherow, in Dead Men’s Praise (1999)

Can a person atone for pure bewilderment?
For hyperbole? for being wrong
In a thousand categorical opinions?
For never opening her mouth, except too soon?
For ignoring, all week long, the waning moon
Retreating from its haunt above the local canyons,
Signaling her season to repent,
Then deflecting her repentance with a song?
Because the rest is just too difficult to face –
What we are – I mean – in all its meagerness –
The way we stint on any modicum of kindness –
What we allow ourselves – what we don’t learn –
How each lapsed, unchanging year resigns us –
Return us, Lord, to you, and we’ll return.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork

One day you finally know
what you have to do, and begin,
though the voices around you
keep shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
begins to tremble
and you feel the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cries.
But you don’t stop.
You know what you have to do,
though the wind pries
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
is terrible.
It is already late
late enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you leave their voices behind,
the stars begin to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there is a new voice,
which you slowly
recognize as your own,
that keeps you company
as you stride deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you can do,
determined to save
the only life you can save –
Yours.

Cold Feet

From Siddur Sha’ar Zahav

They say cold feet are a sign of turning back,
The failure of internal will –
But I say it can be the other way,
The body’s anticipation of things to come.
Whether demons are nipping at your heels
Or gnawing within, here’s the thing:
Settle quietly, close your eyes,
Then take the most deliberate, deep breath,
As though it were the very first (God’s breath) –
And when you can feel it penetrate every bit of your being,
Making the rest of your life possible,
You open your eyes
And take that first step out into the sea of reeds.
Watered feet are just the price of coming home.

Cruel Waters

by John Miodownik

Why, I asked? Why have all these seemingly friendly, well-mannered and trusted brooks and rivers, which we have grown up with, turned on us so unexpectedly, so violently, so destructively? What angered them? What provoked their rage to do us such harm? Why have these placid waters swelled to such a powerful surf rolling over our beloved Vermont villages swallowing homes, roads, bridges, trees, memories and dreams?

My son’s basement flooded full to the first floor threatening the very foundation of his home. All was sad, all was bleak, as the indifferent muddy waters invaded his life. But, at once, the small community rejected such harsh indignity. Regiments of neighbors hurried from near and far, armed with pumps, buckets, shovels, mops and endless energy to help stem the tide the best they could.

Left floating in the aftermath were personal belongings – clothing, bedding, old photographs, children’s treasured artwork, important files and valued documents. All were lovingly cleaned by strangers, and hung up on lines to dry. There, fluttering in the morning breeze, was one particular salvaged document. It was not signaling surrender but rather hope over chaos, cruelty and ruthlessness. By chance, it was my father’s official release paper from concentration camp Buchenwald.

Atonement Songs

by Judith Rafaela, in Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico (2001) [edited and adapted]

The wild sounds of the shofar
pierce my skin and open my heart.
And I’m crazed for tunes in a minor key
that vibrate my tailbone and belly
and echo out across a shul packed
with doubters and believers
who come together
one day of the year to hear
archaic formulas and prayers.
Just for this moment
open us to rich tones –
Simple melodies that convey truths or fictions
about our fate.

What Can I Say

by Mary Oliver, in Swan (2010)

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

From Where Redemption Will Come

by Annie Dillard

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in God’s holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead — as if innocence had ever
been — and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.