April is National Poetry Month… I’m a bit behind the bandwagon on this one, but as there’s still a week of April, I haven’t completely missed it! While I don’t read much poetry in the standard definition of the term, there are a few that I find powerful. Mostly the “poetry” I encounter is to be found in texts set to music.
The following is a reading in my synagogue’s prayerbook for the High Holy Days. It’s April now, so it’s not exactly the High Holy Days, but I think the sentiment here can be considered applicable for any time someone wants to start afresh or turn over a new leaf. The background is a text called “Unetaneh Tokef,” the words of a vision experienced by a medieval rabbi who was supposedly tortured for refusing to convert from Judaism. As he lay dying from his injuries, he was carried into the synagogue and had a vision, the text of which is the apocalyptic Unetaneh Tokef.
The story is probably apocryphal. Historians have been unable to find any record of the rabbi of the story, and suspect that the poem is centuries older. The version below is basically a midrash, a way of retelling a religious text in a way that highlights the deeper metaphorical meanings. I prefer this one to the original, frankly. It makes more sense to me, and the end-of-days tone is rather thrilling.
When we really begin a new year it is decided,
and when we actually repent it is determined:
who shall be truly alive and who shall merely exist;
who shall be happy and who shall be miserable;
who shall attain fulfillment in their day and who shall not attain fulfillment in their day;
who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition and who shall be overcome by the waters of failure;
who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy and who shall be torn by the wild beast of resentment;
who shall hunger for companionship and who shall thirst for approval;
who shall be shattered by the earthquake of social change and who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity;
who shall be strangled by insecurity and who shall be stoned into submission;
who shall be content and who shall wander in search of satisfaction;
who shall be serene and who shall be distraught;
who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted by anxiety;
who shall be poor in their own eyes and who shall be rich in tranquility;
who shall be brought low with futility and who shall be exalted through achievement.
But repentance, prayer and good deeds have the power to change the character of our lives.
Let us resolve to repent, to pray, and to do good deeds so that we may begin a truly new year.