Who Shall I Say Is Calling – Kol Nidrei 5776

Who By Fire

By Leonard Cohen

And 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 very slow decay,

And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,

Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,

And who by avalanche, who by powder,

Who for his greed, who for his hunger,

And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,

Who in solitude, who in this mirror,

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,

Who in mortal chains, who in power,

And who shall I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen recorded this song in 1974.  The words are based on the prayer in Unetaneh Tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live, and who shall die…”  The music is based upon the melody that he heard as a boy on Yom Kippur in Montreal.

In a 1979 interview, Leonard Cohen is asked about the last line:  “Who shall I say is calling?”  The interviewer asks:  “So who is calling?”

The artist answers: “Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms which is Who is it or What is it that determines who will live and who will die?”

In his ambiguity, Leonard Cohen captures many of our reactions to this prayer.

Who is calling?  God?  The Angel of Death?  Or is it we who determine who lives and who dies?

Maybe it is a cry of injustice, a rejection of a God who callously passes judgment on human beings like they are sheep.

Or maybe the answer is that no one is calling.  We are here all alone.

Is this not the fundamental question that humans have always asked – who shall I say is calling?  Is there someone or something out there?  Is there an order or purpose to the universe?  Are human beings, am I, here for any particular reason, or is it all just a random roll of the dice?  And if there is some Force or Being behind all of this, is there any rhyme or reason to the vicissitudes of life? Or is everything essentially arbitrary, and Divine justice a joke?

Today, more than any other day of the year, these are questions that come to the forefront of our consciousness.  Yom Kippur is the day when we face our own lives, our own mortality, face to face.  It is the day when, after a forty day process of teshuvah that began a month before Rosh Hashanah, our final fate for the coming year is locked in place.  It is the day, more than any other, when God takes interest in each of our lives, and resets our relationship for one more year.  And so it is a day of enormous tension, as our fates hang in the balance.

So who shall I say is calling?  Who is this God – if He or She or It even exists?

As we might expect, our tradition does not speak in a unified voice.  Dr. Ruth Calderon, of the Hartman Institute, points to three images of God that appear in our Yom Kippur texts, three radically different depictions of Who is calling and what is expected from us.  Usually, I refrain from using gendered pronouns to refer to God.  For these images, I need to use them to do them justice.

The first is from our mahzor.  It is the prayer that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song.  Unetaneh Tokef.  God is the Judge, presiding over the courtroom on the Day of Judgment.  He is the Prosecutor, the Expert, and the Witness.  God brings the case against us, listing all of the charges.  All evidence is on the table, written in the Book of Remembrance and sealed by our own hands.  There is no escape.

Then the Shofar sounds, and even the angels tremble in fear and terror, for they know that they too will be judged on this awesome day.

God then becomes a shepherd, inspecting each and every sheep.  Although softer than the judge metaphor, with the Shepherd taking interest in His flock, we are still very small.  As all of creation passes under His staff, the Divine Shepherd issues a verdict for the coming year.

Who will live, and who will die; who will live out his days, and whose days will be cut short; who by fire, and who by water, and so on.

This is a petrifying vision of God, and a scary depiction of Yom Kippur.  And, it is the dominant image in our mahzor.  A God of justice Who gives us exactly what we have coming to us, Who cannot be dissuaded, and to top it all off, Who does not even share the verdict with us.

How many of us have been terrified of this God, or allowed ourselves to be driven away by such a horrifying metaphor?

Who shall I say is calling?

The next image of God appears in the Mishnah for Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:8-9).  It begins with the standard theology of teshuvah.  Atonement is granted when we have conducted the proper steps of repentance.   Sincerity counts.  We seek forgiveness from each other for the wrongs we do to each other, and from God for the sins we commit against God.  That is the part of the Mishnah that Rabbis usually like to quote (including yours truly).

But then the Mishnah continues:

Rabbi Akiva said:  Happy are you, O Israel!  Before Whom are you made pure?  Who purifies you?  It is your Father who is in heaven, as it says: And I will sprinkle pure water on you and you will be purified. (Ezekiel 36:25)  And it says, Mikveh Yisrael Adonai.  God is the hope of Israel. (Jeremiah 17:13)

Mikveh in the passage means hope, but Akiva reads it differently.  He reads it as mikvah, a Jewish ritual immersion bath.  God is the mikvah of Israel.  “Just as the immersion bath purifies the impure, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.”

To go into a mikvah, a person must first prepare.  All clothes are taken off.  Nails are trimmed.  Hair is combed so that loose strands can be removed.  Makeup and jewelry are taken off.  Nothing can get between an immersant and the living waters of the mikvah.  In a spiritual sense, the person who emerges from the mikvah is not the same as the person who entered.

But in Akiva’s metaphor, it is not a physical bath, but rather a Transcendent God Who purifies us.  God is both distant and close.  By jumping in to the water, so to speak, our sins are washed from our souls.  We are completely surrounded by holiness.

It is an intimate, deeply personal relationship, strongly counterposed to the Divine Judge and Shepherd Who dominates the pages of our Mahzor.

Who shall I say is calling?

The third image of God appears in a story from the Talmud (BT Berachot 7a).  Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha is a former High Priest.  He recounts what happened one year during Yom Kippur.

Once I entered into the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, to burn incense in the Inner Innermost sanctum.  I saw Akatriel Yah Lord of Hosts sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion.

He said to me:  ‘Yishmael my son, bless me!’

I said to him:  ‘Master of the Universe!  May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, that Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes, that You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’

He nodded to me with His head.

The Talmud then derives a summary lesson from Yishmael’s story.

What does this come to teach us?  It teaches us never to underestimate the blessing offered by an ordinary person.

When we think about family members blessing one another, it is usually parents who are blessing their children.  But in this story, it is the child who blesses his Father.  What does this say about God?  If you were Yishmael, and God asked you for a blessing on Yom Kippur.  What would you say?  How would you bless your own flesh and blood parent?

In this story, God is Immanent.  Yishmael actually sees Him when he enters the Holy of Holies.  He is revealed as a parent in need of blessing – lonely, possibly insecure, and scared of what He might do.

When Yishmael offers his blessing for God’s kinder, gentler qualities to dominate, God nods in approval.  God wants that too, because He is scared that His stern, angry side will rule.  God is a lonely parent that needs our blessing, our help to become the God He wants to be.

Somehow, Yishmael knows exactly the right words to say.

These are three totally unique depictions of God on Yom Kippur.  Who shall I say is calling?  God is a stern, cold judge passing sentence on all of creation.  God is a purifying mikvah, able to cleanse the soul of any who approaches God with honesty.  God is a lonely, scared Parent who needs our help to be kind.

The Torah describes humans as created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.  Something about us resembles God.  But maybe it is the other way around.  Maybe it is we human beings who have created God in our image.

Most of the language that we use to talk about God is in human terms.  God feels anger, joy, sadness, and regret.  God speaks, forgives, goes to war, and remembers.  These are all finite, human terms that cannot capture that which is infinite.  The only way that we imperfect human beings can even attempt to understand God is from the vantage point of our own experience.  We use what we know as metaphors to convey that which we cannot fully understand.  When we speak about God, we are really talking about ourselves.

Let us explore these three Yom Kippur descriptions of God from the perspective of what we really want for ourselves.

God is a Judge and Shepherd, carrying out justice and issuing decrees that will determine our fate in the coming year.  We want to know that our actions matter.  We want to live in a moral universe in which those who do good are rewarded with long life, health, and prosperity, and those who do evil have their lives taken away from them.

This is the life that parents try to shape for their children.  We strive to maintain the illusion of a just world for as long as we can, but there inevitably comes a time when we have to admit to our kids that life is indeed not fair.

Even though it may not correspond to the world we experience, the idea of a God who is a King, Judge, and Shepherd is comforting.  It is how most of us wish the world operated.

At other times, what we want is not justice, but comfort.  We are lonely, and our souls are restless.  We want to know that God will be available to us if we seek Him, that when we strip off the exterior layers and lay bare our souls, a comforting Presence is there waiting for us.

Finally, we want to know that we matter to God.  That God needs us, is waiting for us.  That we make a difference to the world and will play a part in its redemption.

At the moment that the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy, he finds instead of the terrifying Power that instantly strikes dead any human who risks a glance, a waiting Parent who needs His child’s help.

Perhaps when Yishmael blesses God with mercy overcoming strict justice, we are really blessing ourselves with the same message – that our world needs more compassion from us.  Just as God needs a blessing to be His best self, perhaps we do as well.

Yom Kippur has just begun.  We will spend the next twenty four hours in prayer and contemplation, hoping that by the end God will have accepted us and cleansed our souls for another year of blessing.

What kind of God are we seeking – a God of justice, a God of purifying waters, or a Lonely Parent Who is waiting for our blessing?

Who shall I say is calling?

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