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    All I saw was words

    It all began with Un’tanneh Tokef, I don’t know how many years ago.

    The Musaf service was intense and impressive. The shule was unusually quiet – apart from a low buzz of davening (and, unfortunately, a certain amount of chatter).

    On the whole, even the least spiritually inclined congregants were swaying in time with the choral chant.

    The music moved through the powerful themes of the occasion and suddenly the message hit home. Even the chatterers took notice.

    No-one failed to realise how every one of us was on the agenda: “Who will live and who will die, who will have rest and who will be disturbed?” The questions on the page were actually about our own very selves! The Heavenly Court was focussing on us!

    “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” The prayer came to a climax: Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah – “penitence, prayer and charity determine the outcome!”

    The three words were proclaimed by the chazan, choir and congregation, and the echo reverberated. Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah… teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah… teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

    If I heard those words once that day, I heard them a thousand times. The building was full of people: the atmosphere was full of words. Which words? … these three words. I held my Machzor but all I saw was the words taking off from the page, taking wing, blowing in the wind.

    These themes recur throughout the holydays… teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah; teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah…

    The Talmud (AZ 18a) tells of the martyr Chananiah ben Teradyon whom the Romans wrapped in a Torah scroll and set on fire. His pupils were powerless to save him. They could only ask, “Master, what do you see?” His answer? Gevilim nisrafim v’otiyot por’chot, “pages burning but letters flying upwards!”

    The day I am talking about, there were words flying upwards wherever I looked. No-one had set us on fire (except metaphorically). No-one was burning us, but Chananiah ben Teradyon was in our midst and the echo was uncontrollable. I reached out to take hold of the words but they only reverberated and slipped out of my hands.

    Teshuvah: repentance, return… the first word almost mocked us. We needed to capture the word and let it restore and re-shape our Jewish identity.

    Tzedakah: charity, righteousness, compassion… we needed to reach out to the words, to restore and re-shape our society with more love, justice, peace and truth.

    Tefillah: prayer, spirituality, devoutness… somehow the second of the three words was the most elusive. How strange it was. The synagogue was full. There was plenty of davening and gusto singing, but many hearts were empty of spirituality – and in some places, the constant buzz of gossip recalled tziftzuf m’tzaf’tz’fim (“birds’ chirping”).

    The Chafetz Chayyim tells about the old woman whose fruit stall was knocked over by ruffians and the apples flew everywhere. What did the old lady do? Picked up the stall, gathered as many apples as possible, and was back in business.

    That’s an example for us, said the Chafetz Chayyim: when your thoughts go flying, recapture as many as possible and try to restore your kavvanah.

    I let my eyes roam – for how long, I don‘t remember. I really saw people’s thoughts flying off in every direction.

    What blew them around was the people around me who could no longer just daydream, the people who had somehow lost control over their ideas, the sound patterns that sent musical notes everywhere, into every corner, up to the ceiling and down to the floor. The words of the heavy prayer book which themselves were often so heavy and complicated… the words awakened even my own susceptibility to distraction.

    When I realised what was going on, I tried to assert my strength. I tried to grasp the errant alphabet and (echoing a peasant in the time of the Besht) to say, “God, please help us catch hold of the flying Hebrew letters and turn them into words and prayers for us!”

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