Heaven, Holiness, And Harmony

On erev Yom Kippur, 1990, the heavens broke open over kibbutz Bet Hashita. In the moment, after the singing, no one spoke; no one wanted to leave. Later, individual recollections of heaven, holiness, and harmony seemed woven into one story, one shared experience:

When Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven…
this was a moment of holiness that we did not understand, but we felt it powerfully…
… as though the harmony had come from a place and was returning to that place;
new—and yet—known…

The community found heaven, holiness, and harmony in a prayer never heard on this secular kibbutz. Yet, a thousand years earlier, that prayer, Unetaneh Tokef,  rose from the same struggle for meaningful life in the presence of mortality that Bet Hashita had faced most fully since the Yom Kippur war in which eleven of its members died.

Unetaneh Tokef—we acknowledge today’s powerful holiness—begins the prayer attributed to the 10th century sage, Rabbi Amnon of Mayence. According to tradition, he composed this prayer as he lay dying in the synagogue at the beginning of the Days of Awe, martyred for the faith he would not abandon.

For the Bet Hashita community, Yom Kippur is not a day—as Rabbi Amnon described it—on which to come humbly before God who inscrutably presides over destiny. But on that erev Yom Kippur seventeen years after the war, when Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven, he was singing Rabbi Amnon’s prayer.

It was the popular Israeli composer, Yair Rosenblum, who brought Rabbi Amnon’s Yom Kippur language to Bet HaShita. Rosenblum, who had spent three years on the kibbutz, wanted to give something personal as a parting gift; something that would help the community find a Yom Kippur voice.

At first, he imagined a composition for Kol Nidre—but something made him unsure about that choice. Certainly, Kol Nidre is an icon of Yom Kippur; it also affirms the religious values of the secular community. It is devoid of references to God and focuses strongly on the power of community, on human responsibility and effort. On the other hand, Kol Nidre is a perplexing (Aramaic) contract; distant, raising no questions, prompting no quests.

When opening a holiday prayer-book for more ideas, the book literally fell open to Unetaneh Tokef. Rosenblum took note of the well used page, evidence that someone had returned again and again to these words. A crease in the page, like a crease in the soul, becomes more pliable with use, easier to break open.  Here was a poem that spoke in beautiful Hebrew to the heart of the day.

True, Rabbi Amnon’s poem features many images of an all-powerful God. But more importantly, Unetaneh Tokef is a poem about loss, frailty, mortality, and the yearning for a life that is coherent and not arbitrary. Perhaps new music could prompt a renewed capacity to hear that images of God need not dominate; they might be enlisted in the service of the transcendant themes that belong both to Bet Hashita and to Rabbi Amnon.

After a wakeful night with Rabbi Amnon’s prayer, Rosenblum composed through his tears in the quiet of the early morning. Mid-morning, he played his Unetaneh Tokef for a friend who reported:  When he finished playing his song… he said that in his mind’s eye, he could see Hanoch Albalek, a kibbutz member with a unique voice, bringing his melody to the heavens.

 And so it was on the Yom Kippur of 1990/5751—                          

When Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven
this was a moment of holiness that we did not understand, but we felt it powerfully…
… as though the harmony had come from a place and was returning to that place;
new—and yet—known…

(Click for Unetaneh Tokef prayer—as sung to the music of Yair Rosenblum)

(Click to listen to Hanock Albalek singing Unetaneh Tokef—music by Yair Rosenblum)

This entry was posted in Days of Awe, Holidays. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Heaven, Holiness, And Harmony

  1. Eli Herscher says:

    Dearest Steve,

    Thanks for this beautiful meditation, which will accompany me into Yom Kippur. Love you and miss you.

    G’mar chatima tova…

    A year on many blessings for you, your family, and our people.

    Eli

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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