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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Recognizing the Voice

by Ron Cytron

Our high holiday services include a section of liturgy that I have found troubling. We recite a long list of ways in which we might meet our end this year: who by fire, who by water, and so on. This section tells us that our fate is written on Rosh Hashanah and then sealed on Yom Kippur, implying that what we do during the intervening 10 days might change our fate. While I find great meaning in our Days of Awe, and while as a Reform Jew I try to find meaningful interpretations of our texts, I continue to struggle with this part of our liturgy.
I turned recently to a modern setting of this prayer, which comes to us from Leonard Cohen (famous composer of “Hallelujah”). You can find a performance of this piece with legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins here. Cohen's setting opens with the familiar "who by fire, who by water" but continues with other forms of demise, such as drug overdose and suicide. It's a powerful setting. What caught my attention was that each stanza ends with "And who shall I say is calling?"
Who is calling? We say this on the phone when we seek a polite way of saying that we don't recognize the voice at the other end. The voices we hear most often---friends, family, business associates---are typically easy to recognize, and caller ID allows us to "recognize" voices we don't remember so well. For those closest to us, we recognize their voices in the first few words we hear, on a phone, even in a large crowd. The voices we hear less often can be harder to recognize.

At this time of year we begin to think about the far-off voices, hard to recognize even as we struggle to hear them. For me, perhaps for you as well, the voice most far away is the one inside me, telling me that the time for t'shuvah (return) is near.

Who is calling? The far-off voice becomes stronger, and remembered, as we move closer to it.

Ron Cytron

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