Removing the Evil of the Decree: Little Things Matter

Monday, July 23, 2018

Removing the Evil of the Decree: Little Things Matter
Congregation Shaarei Tefillah Rosh Hashanah 5773
by Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels

Medieval Ashkenzic Jews living under precarious conditions in 13th
Century Christendom, told a Rosh Hashanah tale about the wise and pious
Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who served as an advisor to dukes and bishops.
Wanting to elevate his status and perhaps even save his soul, the Bishop
of Mainz would pressure Rabbi Amnon to consider converting to
Christianity. Each time, he would politely refuse, as diplomatic decorum
demanded. But one time, Rabbi Amnon, trying to placate the Bishop’s
increasingly incessent invitations to convert, neglected to demur and asked
for three days to consider the proposal. Rabbi Amnon immediately
regretted his reply. He didn’t need even a single second to think about it!
He was a loyal and faithful Jew and would not betray his God, the Torah or
his people. He plunged into a severe depression from within which neither
kith nor kin could console him. When the third day arrived, the Bishop of
Mainz sent a delegation to bring the rabbi to the Church, but Rabbi Amnon
refused to attend. Emissary after emissary called upon the rabbi to go see
the Bishop as he had promised, but Rabbi Amnon would not be moved
from his seat of mourning over his misspoken words. Finally, soldiers were
sent to physically escort Rabbi Amnon to the once admiring, but now angry
Bishop, who demanded Rabbi Amnon’s immediate conversion. Rabbi
Amnon told the Bishop that he had sinned against his God and his faith
with his words and that his tongue should therefore be cut out in
punishment. The Bishop, however, responded that Rabbi Amnon had
originally spoken well, so his tongue would be spared, but his feet and his
hands that had failed to bring him would be severed should he continue to
refuse to convert. A gruesome torture ensued whose details we will not
elaborate. At its end, the still faithful, failing, dismembered Rabbi Amnon
requested to be brought to the synagogue, for it was Rosh Hashanah. He
was situated next to the Shaliach Tzibbur, and before the kedushah,
requested to share a final prayer before the opened Aron Kodesh. Weak in
body, yet strong in spirit, Rabbi Amnon recited the piyyut, the liturgical
poem that perhaps best captures the ethos of these Yamim Noraim, these
Days of Awe, “U-N’Taneh Tokef,” which the new Koren machzor
magnificently translates as “Let us voice the power of this holy and
awesome day.”

Rabbi Amnon’s story and the origin of U-N’taneh Tokef is first
attested by the 13th century Vienesse rabbi Yitchak ben Moshe, known for
his influential halakhic work ‘Or Zarua. However, today we know that the
prayer is much older, probably from the 6th Century Byzantine period in
Israel, since we found versions of U-N’taneh Tokef in the Cairo Genizah,
among other reasons.

Post-crusades Medieval Ashkenazic Jews related to the tragic story
of Rabbi Amnon, at least partly, for its model of martyrdom in the face of
persecution, what we can call righteousness of a last resort. For us living
in the aftermath of the Shoah and under the influence of Zionism and the
Modern State of Israel, martyrdom no longer inspires as it once did.
To me, however, there is another aspect of Rabbi Amnon’s story to
which I personally do relate, for some reason this year even more than in
the past, and that is the underlying feeling of being subject to forces
beyond one’s control. In this story of losing feet and hands, of not being
able to move anywhere or do anything -- well, almost anything, except for
perhaps pray, we can share in its trope of unchangeable fate, of
overwhelming helplessness. This sentiment is at the core of the first half of
U-Netaneh Tokef, the powerful Rosh Hashanah prayer that we sing in
unison, that we have come to know so well:
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן וּמוֹכִֽיחַ, וְיוֹדֵעַ וָעֵד, וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם,
וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה, וְתִזְכּוֹר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת: וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵֽפֶר
הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת, וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא, וְחוֹתַם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ.

In truth it is You: Judge and Accuser, Knowing One and
Witness, writing and sealing, counting, numbering,
remembering all forgotten things, You open the book of
memories, it is read of itself, and every person’s name
is signed there...All who have come into this world pass
before you, you count and number and regard the soul
of every living thing. You rule off the limit of each
creation’s life, וְתִכְתּוֹב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם - - and write down
the verdict for each.
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָ תֵמוּן,

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is
sealed: how many will pass away and how many will be
born/ who will live and who will die, who in his due time
and who before, who by water, fire, sword or beast, by
hunger, thirst, earthquake or plague, by strangling or
stoning; who will rest and who will wander, who will be
calm and who will be harassed, who will find ease, and
who will suffer, who will be poor and who will be rich,
who cast down and who raised high.
כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִ בָּרֵאוּן: מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת: מִי
א בְקִצּוֹ: מִי בָאֵשׁ, וּמִי בַמַּֽיִם: מִי בַחֶֽרֶב,