Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

And Who An Untimely End

As I fully expected, Rosh Hashanah was very difficult for me this year. On top of the fact that any holiday or special occasion accentuates the pain of Aaron's absence, this year the Rosh Hashanah davening, which I usually find inspiring (well, somewhat more or less so depending on the chazzan!), made me feel much worse. In particular, the centerpiece prayer of the service, "Unesana Tokef", with its quintessential message of reward and punishment, was terrifyingly personal and real:
"On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed
Who will live and who will die
Who will meet a timely end,
And who an untimely end..."
I am a person who always wants to know why. When applied to Aaron's loss, that tendency has become very dangerous and scary. I have tried to push it down, to keep telling myself that we are never meant to understand God's plan, that Aaron is in a better place, and all the other "good" rationalizations. But Unesana Tokef cut right through all these emotional shields. As I listened to the chazzan, one question, one "why", would not be silenced in my heart: Why wasn't my son written in the "book of life" last Rosh Hashana? Why???

OrthoMom wrote a lovely piece right before Rosh Hashanah, in which she presented a symbolic interpretation of Unesana Tokef as demonstrating the value and preciousness of life. I can appreciate this as an additional option, a "drash". But the "pshat", the simple literal meaning of this prayer, is so obvious, so clearly intended by the legendary author, that I cannot dismiss it.

This is not an issue of faith. I believe with all my heart that Aaron's essence still exists and is with God. In fact I can't even imagine what it would have been like to endure his loss if I didn't have this emunah in the permanence of his soul. But how can I ignore the fact that the main blessing we beseech God for, over and over again in the high holiday services, is for life. Not for heaven, not for the resurrection, but for life, pure and basic.

We are a religion of life - the life of this world. Reward and punishment in the world to come is something we do believe in, but the entire focus of our observance and theology is to preserve current, physical life, at nearly all costs. "Therefore choose life". "The book of life". "Lechayim". Unesana Tokef doesn't say "who will live, and who will go to heaven". Death is portrayed as a failure, as the ultimate bad judgment that must be avoided.

I have no neat conclusion to this post, and I'm not fishing for an answer that I know does not exist. There is more I want to say about the fundamental question of "why bad things happen to good people" (yes, I did just finish reading Rabbi Kushner's famous book), but my thoughts are not coherent enough yet to put down in writing.

On the immediate issue, I'll just have to accept that like so many other aspects of my life, my high holiday prayers will never be the same as they were before.

Thanks for giving me the chance to unload. And may all of us, and all our children, all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for the coming year.


At 10/7/05, 2:13 PM, Blogger Jack Steiner said...

Hi Elie,

You do a very good job of expressing yourself. It is very touching and very moving. I hope that blogging helps to ease your heart.

At 10/7/05, 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are no words, Elie. Yes, as Jack said, you do an excellent job of articulating the unspeakable. Meanwhile I keep starting and erasing. May his memory be for a blessing.

At 10/7/05, 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I also spent a substantial part of my davening time thinking about Aaron this year, especially during Unesana Tokef. The reality that god actually decides who will live and who will die on Rosh Hashana has never been so unalterably clear to me before despite the obviuous fact that Aaron was not the first person I ever met who passed away. Perhaps it was the starkness of his leaving us, the here today, gone tomorrow aspect of his petirah. Aside from why bad things happen to good people, especially good children, which I do not believe humans have the capacity to understand - at least not his human - loving god and thanking him for all the blessing in our lives - is also challenging in the face of tragedy. The only thing I have to offer is that we are meant to view life from a human's perspective with the knowledge of what we know and experience and our perspective of good - life and bad - death. Our prayers are also focused on very human desires for wealth, honor, rain, tranquility etc.

In times of tragedy we say things like "baruch dayan haemet" acknowledging a god like perspective that we obviously cannot understand being humans. So though Aaron is in a "far far better place" we are still allowed to miss him fiercely, wish he was here and ask why god did not inscribe him in the book of life. May god give you strength and ultimately some comfort.


At 10/7/05, 4:37 PM, Blogger orthomom said...

It is cold comfort that the message of the prayer can be interepreted to be about the preciousness of life, when that message is one you are so painfully aware of. This was a beautiful post, heartbreaking in the pain it conjures up of what hearing the prayer must have been like for you. As I have said more than once upon reading your posts, there are no words. Again, I am so sorry for your loss. May you have a Shana Tovah of Nechama for your loss, and Nachat from your family.

At 10/7/05, 6:11 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

I'm sorry for your loss. I was just thinking about the same issue recently...But you put it in such a poignant way.


At 10/8/05, 9:06 PM, Blogger Jean said...

I suppose we all come to terms with things in the way that helps us the most. I had an aunt I loved dearly who had struggled with cancer on and off, but had been cancer free for many years. She lost her husband and it was very hard for her. On her way out to visit his grave one day, she was in a terrible accident and was taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital that could provide the care she would need. They were going to send her to surgery, so we rushed to be by her side. I am afraid that we lost her. After the fact the doctor came out and told us that they would not have done the surgery anyway. When they were doing the scans to see about her injuries, they found that she had cancer everywhere. The paramedics reported to us that she told them she was fine at the scene and they spent their time with the lady who had been driving the car. When she got to the hospital they gave her something to prevent pain right away. It was all such a shock, but I knew what a fine woman my aunt had been and that what happened was actually G-ds way of taking her before she suffered. That has helped me to deal with her death. Now, when I hear of a tragic or untimely death, it helps me to wonder if the person were in fact being saved from a terrible future event? Sorry, I know that nothing anyone says will be of help to you, you have to work through this. Prior to my aunts death I had simply told myself that we were not to know some things....that is what made me think of the whole thing, that you said about the same thing. Keep writing.....

At 10/9/05, 3:49 PM, Blogger Assorted Babble by Suzie said...

I am very touched by your post! I wish there was something I could say. Came over from Jack's!

God Bless you and your family.

At 10/9/05, 10:02 PM, Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Elie,

This is an extraordinarily beautiful and thoughful post! I am ...

Very Sincerely yours,

Alan D. Busch @TheBookofBen

At 10/10/05, 12:55 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think the tremendous impact of "Unesana Tokef" is common for all bereaved parents.
It is like a crashing wave of reality. It is a powerful message about the impact of the High Holidays.

Wishing you a sweet new year.

At 10/10/05, 2:51 PM, Blogger Batya said...

I understand from friends, that it's never the same, and everyone finds ways to go on.

And as people must have told you so many times, we have no way in this world, to understand G-d's accounting.

At 10/12/05, 12:58 AM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie, I've just finished reading all of your posts about your son's death. I have no words. U'n'taneh Tokef can't be an easy prayer to read after what you've gone through. May you and your family be comforted.

At 10/20/05, 9:11 AM, Blogger benros52589 said...

in many movies when a person is dead many times they will say he's alive in you and i think that is applicant to our real lives to


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