Long-time Leonard Cohen favourite "Who By Fire" was included in his Live In London 2008 concert. Its exceptional flamenco guitar introduction reminded the audience of the tensions between east and west, oriental and occidental musical modes, Ashkenaz and Sepharad, Lenny‘s full commitment to Buddhism and his unshakable Yiddishkeit that travelled with him throughout his artistic and spiritual journey.
The lyric undoubtedly calls upon our prayer of awesome judgment. It asks, “who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who in the night-time, who by high ordeal, who by common trial, who in your merry, merry month of May, who by slow decay?” Three stanzas tighten the spring of tension between life and the deaths imposed by circumstances of powerlessness and emotional despair. Cohen then invokes The Unnamed, asking, “Who shall I say is calling?” With the Cohen rendition loud in memory and endlessly available online, Unetaneh tokef will ring differently in our ears this year. (Mishkan Teshuvah l’Rosh haShanah, pages 124-130)
As we prepare these reflections in Av to ready them for Elul, Covid outcomes - which have escalated in Victoria once again - remain unknown. Some congregations have video options and will enable participation on devices, to provide safe distance alternatives for coming services from viewers far beyond their usual catchment. How will our spirits be transported without the experience of choirs, without the affirmation of others’ voices which speak the prayers of humility in the plural rather than the singular? We wonder what the question of standing before Judgment means in this new context. Without the community around us shoulder to shoulder, how will we locate ourselves in our mutual solitude if we stay home, standing and sitting and stretching and resting before The One Who Calls?
Cohen died in November 2016, having released his final song "You Want It Darker" on the tantalising 18thof September. His final assertion of life was his own kaddish. Knowing that his death was imminent, the chorus clearly proclaimed submission, openness, acceptance. He shared his spiritual preparation with us, “Hineni, I am ready”.
Against millions of Covid infections worldwide, terrible numbers of deaths which are only a beginning, this year the words that wonder about our lives in 5781 challenge us in ways we did not imagine in 2019. However each of us envisions The God We Call By Many Names, many have sought out The Voice in 2020. Whatever its sound, however we heard it, however we dared to face it, those of us who will choose to stand on Rosh Hashanah are preparing for the encounter. Each gets ready in their own way. Each has a choice. How shall we hear The One Who Calls?
-- Rabbi Aviva Kipen