Shana tova!

It’s here! We’re finally at the High Holy Days. I’ve been waiting all year for our temple to retrieve the holiday prayer books from storage so I could share a couple of my favorite readings. 

I never went to synagogue as a kid. When I started going as an adult, it was initially to high holiday services. I was surprised by how some of the passages from Gates of Repentance, the Reform high holiday prayer book, spoke to me. 

Much of the traditional liturgy did not hit home with me at all, and still doesn’t – the praising of God as holy, holy, holy, as mighty, as all-powerful, as the Lord of Hosts, and so on.

But the Reform prayerbooks incorporate modern readings that add a humanist and existentialist color to the traditional themes. They’re part of what drew me to become more involved in the religious side of Judaism. (And ultimately, to this Bat Mitzvah process.)

Here’s my favorite, which is read during the Yom Kippur evening service: 

Birth is a beginning

And death a destination.

And life is a journey:

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age;

From innocence to awareness

And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then, perhaps, to wisdom;

From weakness to strength

Or strength to weakness –

And, often, back again;

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again;

From offense to forgiveness,

From loneliness to love,

From joy to gratitude,

From pain to compassion,

And grief to understanding –

From fear to faith;

From defeat to defeat to defeat –

Until, looking backward or ahead,

We see that victory lies

Not at some high place along the way,

But in having made the journey, stage by stage,

A sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning

And death a destination.

And life is a journey,

A sacred pilgrimage –

To life everlasting. 

Now, personally, I don’t believe in the “life everlasting” bit. But I love the rest of it. It seems so much more honest than a lot of what passes for “inspirational” books and talk in America these days. It reminds us that: 

Life is not a race to the biggest McMansion or highest-ranking job. Sometimes our lives get better and better, but sometimes they don’t. Life, for even the most successful or righteous of us, is a series of defeats. But even with those defeats, life is precious. Living itself is a victory.

I’ve been waiting all year to cite this here in the blog. So today I took the opportunity to look that passage up on the Web.

It turns out it was written by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine, a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco who died in 1999 at the age of 82. Rabbi Fine’s obituary in the J. mentioned his mellifluous voice, his opposition to Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting, his Labor Zionism, his hosting of Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou at the synagogue. 

It did not mention that poem – although ironically, Rabbi Fine may have touched more lives around the country through this one piece of writing than through sixteen years at the Emanu-El pulpit.

None of us know which of the many things we do — big things, small things, even unnoticed things — will ripple out to move others and change the world.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, may you have a sweet and fulfilling 5771. And may you find time, either in the next two weeks or at a moment that is fitting for you, to reflect on your own journey in the spirit of Rabbi Fine.

Shana tova!

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9 Responses to “Shana tova!”

  1. susan milligan Says:

    Thank you, Ilana. Shana tova.

  2. Janice Dean Says:

    Shana tova! On a sadder note, why have I not yet been able to find any Rosh Hashanah cards in Charlottesville? Given that we don’t even have a Reform temple, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. I’m still disappointed, though. Seeing as I was looking for cards last night, your post makes me that much happier today. Thanks!!

  3. jenniferneri Says:

    thanks for sharing that poem. Shana tova

  4. susie m Says:

    Shana tova, to you and your family, Ilana. May this new year bring all of us blessings of peace, health and happiness. Also…hope to see you in the new year…it’s been waaaay too long!

  5. Ellie Shaw Says:

    Thank you, Ilana, for that wise and graceful poem. I hope you and your family enjoy every day of the year ahead – each one is a blessing, as you know. Shana tova.

  6. Madeleine Adkins Says:

    Thank you, Ilana, for sharing that lovely poem–I’ve never heard it before! It’s helping me to get into a HHD-state of mind, which is a bit challenging so far from home (and other Jews!).

    My blog is now up, btw. See the link attached.

    L’shanah tovah,


  7. Kaveh Says:

    Happy New Year, Ilana!

    May the spirit of Rabbi Fine live on.

  8. Mary Says:

    This is my favorite! It took me a while to find it, I wanted to share it with a friend who’s father passed away. I have always found it to be very comforting. Now I know the source. Thanks so much.

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