Must One Face Loss Alone During the High Holidays

Must One Face Loss Alone During the High Holidays?

By Rabbi Joseph S. Ozarowski, D. Min, BCC, Rabbinic Counselor and Chaplain, JCFS Chicago

“Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die…?”
 - (from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, High Holiday Machzor/Prayerbook)

“And who shall I say is calling…?”
 - (Leonard Cohen, from the song “Who by Fire” based on the same Unetaneh Tokef High Holiday prayer)

The Jewish fall holidays are filled with many themes – solemnity, renewal, joy, family, food (what Jewish occasion does not have at least some connection to food!) and much more. But underneath, there are also themes of loss and grief, of questions, of connection and healing from the loss. 

The profound Unetaneh Tokef prayer, recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, asks deep-seated questions about what our fate will be for the coming year. But in its climactic line, it also notes that Tshuva (usually translated as Repentance but really meaning return), Tfila (Prayer) and Tzedaka (usually translated as Charity but really meaning righteous acts) can save us from the Evilness of the decree. This does not necessarily mean that righteous behavior can change what will happen to us. Our own life experience has taught us that. But it does mean that what we do can help us cope with whatever befalls us. A matrix of return to tradition, connection to the Holy One and good deeds can give us the framework for coping and healing. It will not fix things. But it can help us face sadness and loss. 

Leonard Cohen may be adding something to this equation, something that may be inherent in the tradition but needs to be said. By asking “Who is calling?” he may be suggesting that the work is not just inner soul-work. It may relate to Someone (which some might understand as G-d), or someone (another person), or something outside of ourselves. And this, by the way, is also the clinical definition of Spirituality. Being part of something greater than ourselves can benefit our physical as well as our mental health.

At this sacred time on the Jewish calendar, we all wonder about the coming year. We ask the Holy One to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year. We have no assurance that this will happen. And quite possibly we have experienced grief and loss over this past year. But if we can respond to Leonard Cohen’s musical question to let those around us know that someone indeed is calling, and maybe that someone can also be seen as a Someone, then perhaps with help from Above we can support each other into life for the coming year.

On Wednesday, September 6, from 6 to 7pm on Zoom, Rabbi Ozarowski and Marsha Raynes, LCSW, will be leading JCFS Chicago’s annual workshop, “The Healing Shofar.” This workshop includes text study, suggestions on dealing with loss over the Jewish fall holidays and a chance to explore together how to continue the healing process after losing a loved one. In this way, our community can help us lift each other during times of loss. Register here