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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"...who shall live and who shall die..."

I have a confession to make:  I sit and fidget in synagogue on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur just like (or probably worse than) most of you. 

Don't get me wrong, I find some parts of the high holiday services extremely moving.  But there are long sections of the reader's repetition that leave me thumbing through the machzor (holiday prayer book) to check just how many pages remain. 

Sound familiar? 

Some of you are nodding at your monitors... and some of you just told your first fib of the new year.  :-)

One of the things that I noticed a few years ago during one of these inspirational lulls was a story in a footnote connected to the origin of one of the most inspirational liturgical poems (In my humble opinion) in the entire holiday liturgy; The 'U'Netaneh Tokef' prayer.  For those not familiar with it, allow me to share:

It seems that about a thousand years ago in the German city of Mainz there lived a man named Rabbi Amnon who was an adviser to (and by some accounts a friend of) the Bishop of that city.  During one of their conversations the Bishop asked Rabbi Amnon if he would convert to Christianity.   Instead of refusing out of hand, the Rabbi asked for three days to consider the matter.  When he got home he was beside himself, not because he had been asked to convert, but rather because he had given the Bishop the impression that he was actually considering apostasy. 

Rabbi Amnon spent the next three days fasting and in a deep state of mental self-flagellation.  When three days were up and he hadn't returned to give the Bishop his answer, the Bishop had him brought before him.  When asked for his answer Rabbi Amnon told the Bishop that he deserved to have his tongue cut out for the sin of even hinting that he would renounce his faith.  Upon hearing this the Bishop responded that the sin was not in his tongue for what he had said, but rather in his feet for not returning at the appointed time.  The Bishop then ordered that Rabbi Amnon's legs be cut off... joint by joint.  Once his legs were gone his hands hands and arms were also ordered removed... again, joint by joint. 

Admittedly, the first thing that crossed my mind when I read this account was that it casts some small doubt upon the theory that the two had been friends.  But I digress.

Once the amputations had been completed, Rabbi Amnon was taken to his home (along with his severed body parts) to die. He lingered close to death for a few days until Rosh Hashannah when he asked to be carried into the synagogue so that he could attempt to sanctify G-d's name as a partial reparation for the desecration of G-d's name he had caused by giving the impression that he would convert. 

At his request he was carried to the center of the synagogue where he offered a prayer of his own composition - the 'U'Netaneh Tokef' (translation here) ... and then immediately died. 

The story that is told by the compilers of our prayer books is that three days after his death Rabbi Amnon appeared to Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam in a dream and taught him the text of the original prayer he had offered, with the request that it be distributed to all Jewish communities for inclusion in the Holiday liturgy.

For the record, this last part of the story strikes me as a little 'iffy'.  It seems much more reasonable that someone who was present when Rabbi Amnon died after reciting his prayer-poem was so moved by the event that he wrote it down from memory after the holiday and took it upon himself to publicize it.

Whatever the actual path by which the poem entered our high holiday liturgy, the historical events seem to have indeed taken place.  Rabbi Amnon was asked to convert.  He was tortured and had his limbs amputated for ultimately refusing.  He was carried into the synagogue where he offered a personal prayer before expiring. 

Well, this year I sat fidgeting through the reader's repetition of the Mussaf (additional late morning) service on Yom Kippur and wondered to myself how I was going to make it through the day.  As we approached the recital of 'U'Netaneh Tokef' I had the passing thought that nothing like this could ever happen today.  I mean, no matter what the circumstances, a person couldn't simply interrupt the reader and interject his own supplication/addition to the codified service, right?

You can imagine that I was a bit surprised to receive an emphatic answer to my un-asked question only a couple of hours later during the mincha (afternoon) service.

We were most of the way through the afternoon service and my concentration was ebbing quickly.  I had gone through all the extra reading material I'd brought with me, and was starting to feel a little sorry for myself because of my sore back and legs.  Then the reader began reciting 'Avinu Malkeinu' (Our Father our King) which is basically a long list of requests we make to G-d for the coming year. 

As he started reading (and the congregation answered each line responsively), the normally quiet crowd began to whisper and nudge one another.  I turned to see what the commotion was about and could not believe my eyes when I saw Elroi Rafa'el walking by himself up the center aisle towards the reader's desk.

For those who are new here, a little background might be necessary (or you for more details you can read here, here and here).

I knew Elroi because he was a neighbor and I sometimes gave him rides to his base near Beer Sheva.  He was an officer in an elite combat unit until just before the disengagement when he was tragically wounded while leading his men in Gaza.  A large piece of shrapnel entered his skull and came to rest in his brain stem.  He was airlifted to the hospital and his family was rushed to his side... but his parents were told by all the doctors that the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  He would certainly never wake up from so serious an injury... and if he didn't die within a day or two he would probably exist in a persistent vegetative state.

Elroi's family is a deeply religious one and refused to accept this.  Our entire community held daily meetings where Psalms were recited, and almost exactly a year ago his father stood at the readers desk of our synagogue and tearfully declared that he didn't care what the doctors said.  His son would not die... and would in fact make a full recovery... if only enough people would only pray for it.

Many treppenwitz readers (and their communities) joined in prayers and thinking good thoughts about this young officer... and within a few weeks he had miraculously woken up from his coma.  He was completely paralyzed on the left side of his body, but he could communicate and you can imagine his family was extremely grateful to have him back.

For the past year people have continued to pray for his recovery and Elroi Rafa'el has been in a special rehabilitation hospital working with gritty determination to try to regain the use of his body. 

Over the past few months I have seen him stand up from his wheelchair momentarily, and took it as an encouraging sign.  But nobody was prepared to see him actually walking on his own... and certainly not unbidden up to the reader's table in the middle of Yom Kippur services!

When Elroi reached the reader's table he stood next to the person leading the service and seemed to be waiting for something.  The sidelong clances of the reader indicated he was equally in the dark as to what was going on.

We didn't have long to wait.

Just as the reader was about to chant the line, "Our Father our King, send a complete recovery to the sick among your nation", Elroi touched him on the arm to interrupt him and in a clear strong voice intoned the request himself. 

I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried like a baby when I witnessed this. I mean, who better to make such a request on behalf of the nation of Israel than Elroi Refa'el Mizrachi?  The only question that remained was why he had decided to stand up and make the request himself... although two possibilities come to mind:

1.  Having been personally granted such a request, he was arguably a good candidate to make the request on behalf of others.

2.  Since for over a year others have been making the request for Elroi, now that he is able to ask that his recover be completed (I noticed he still walks with great difficulty and his left hand is quite weak), he wanted to ask on his own behalf.

Whatever the reason he had in mind, it was a very moving moment. 

A thousand years ago an evil decree by a German Bishop cost a man his limbs and ultimately his life.  But with the last of his strength this man fought back and chose to sanctify G-d's name... an event which gave us one of the more inspirational portions of our holiday service. 

A little more than a year ago an evil decree was handed down to a young IDF officer... the son and brother of my neighbors... and thousands of people used their prayers and good wishes to drag him back from death.  And in an unforgettable sanctification of G-d's name, Elroi walked to the front of our synagogue and took up his own case - as well as the case of every sick person in the nation of Israel - before his creator.

Each year when I read the words in 'U'Netaneh Tokef'; "Who shall live and who shall die?" I give them only a passing thought. It's just something we say during the long, exhausting holiday services.  I certainly never thought to check if my question was actually being answered. 

But seeing Elroi walk up the center aisle and interrupt the reader I got more than just the answer to last year's question.  I also received the answer to my musings about of whether spontaneous events could be added to the holiday services on our day.  This one will certainly be part of my Yom Kippur service for as long as I live.


Posted by David Bogner on October 3, 2006 | Permalink


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David... thanks for sharing. I can only imagine how moving it was to witness this beautiful event.
It also made me smile to think that, many hours apart, you & I may have been thinking the same things as we listened to our respective services!

Posted by: val | Oct 3, 2006 1:33:55 PM


Posted by: Andy | Oct 3, 2006 2:06:55 PM

oh my trepp...what a moving post...if i'm crying just reading it i can imagine what went on in shul...miracles do happen in the Holy Land...thanks for sharing...stay safe

Posted by: marallyn | Oct 3, 2006 2:12:06 PM

So moving, and so real.

You were "lucky" (if I may use that word considering the pain of young Elroi) to have had the awe of the day spelled out to you in that way!

May we all be blessed with a year in which we hear only good tidings, and may your fellow "mispallel" indeed have a complete recovery.

Posted by: Frummer???? | Oct 3, 2006 2:27:48 PM


Posted by: seawitch | Oct 3, 2006 3:13:24 PM

I have chills...what a "nes" and a beautiful post. Thanks.

Posted by: Essie | Oct 3, 2006 4:16:45 PM

Wow. The chills are still running down my back. Awesome post.

Posted by: JustPassingThrough | Oct 3, 2006 4:17:54 PM

Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. And I'm so glad to know that Elroi Refa'el is doing better.

Posted by: Sandra (AR) | Oct 3, 2006 4:30:45 PM

OK, this is definitely a tissue warning! I've heard of the rabbi Amnon story, but for some reason never connected it to the prayer. Thanks to this post, I now have a better understanding of what it is that we're actually reciting. Ah, now, if only we had such a post for every other part of the service in the book! : )

Posted by: Irina | Oct 3, 2006 4:34:17 PM

OK, this is definitely a tissue warning! I've heard of the rabbi Amnon story, but for some reason never connected it to the prayer. Thanks to this post, I now have a better understanding of what it is that we're actually reciting. Ah, now, if only we had such a post for every other part of the service in the book! : )

Posted by: Irina | Oct 3, 2006 4:35:39 PM

Two stories, neither on a par with yours:

1) A few years ago, I had a job that was killing me while disappearing under me. I had a long, extremely frustrating job search, interviewing for jobs for which I was overqualified, requiring unattractive relocations, and still not getting them. And then I hit the jackpot with a great job, within a 30 minute walk.

That Rosh Hashana, I got to the second half of the "who will..." paragraph, and "mi yanuach u'mi yanua -- I'm forgetting the words now -- mi yishafel u'mi y'yarum" and realized that it was all about me. Every year, I now spend at least 15 minutes on that paragraph, giving thanks, not even asking about the future.

2) Less personal, I remember Rosh Hashana of 2001, in my parents home outside New York, after my brother had run for his life. There was a strange element of joy, as people really got it for the first time, having just passed under the shepherd's staff themselves.

Anyway, on a less morbid note -- I don't know if Slihha is a deliberate Yom Kippur reference or just coincidence, but you've got to love reggae teshuvah.

Posted by: JSinger | Oct 3, 2006 4:36:46 PM

Back to morbid, two more thoughts:

3) The obsessive detailing of Rabbi Amnon's torture and death (which is *invariably* a feature of that story) has always struck me as odd and unsettling, almost pornographic.

4) One thing I find extremely depressing about the piyyutim is how they're a product of a Jewish world -- Mainz, Tours, Oria, Orleans -- that has been completely obliterated. You have this beautiful poetry written by communities surrounded by illiterates and half-savages, and most of it didn't even survive to be wiped out by Hitler.

Posted by: JSinger | Oct 3, 2006 4:44:46 PM

Thank you for yet a most moving post. It is made even more moving when I consider the news I received on Yom Kippur regarding my medical situation. If you wish and have time, you can read it here... http://thsprague.blogspot.com/2006/10/evil-decree-has-been-wiped-away-or.html

Posted by: Tracey | Oct 3, 2006 6:12:11 PM

Beautiful, moving post - I will certainly keep the young man in my thoughts & prayers. Incidentally, the name Elroi (as you probably know) means "The Lord is my shepherd", as in Psalm 23. The psalmist continues, "Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I do not fear, for You are with me..." How entirely appropriate. May Elroi Raphael have a full and complete recovery, and please keep us posted.

Posted by: Psachya | Oct 3, 2006 7:01:45 PM

BTW - whenever I hear the story of Rabbi Amnon & his "friend" the bishop, I always think the same thing: With friends like that, who needs enemies? Ya think this bishop & Yasser Arafat had any relatives in common?

Posted by: Psachya | Oct 3, 2006 7:07:23 PM

As you may know, I am an Atheist Jew and yet I was moved by your story. Very beautiful.

Every seemingly boring parshah can be brought to vivid life if only we listen to it as if it were spoken for the first time.

Posted by: bernie | Oct 3, 2006 7:18:50 PM

A beautiful and moving post.

I am glad to see that our prayers on Elroi Rafa'el's behalf have - at least partially - been answered.

U-netaneh Tokef has had special meaning for me ever since my mother's passing 18 years ago. This year, with so many of our friends having lost loved ones, it once again had the power to make tears well up. As chazzan for our congregation's Musaf service on Yom Kippur, I have to fight to keep my voice under control during this most touching and emotionally resonant prayer.

Posted by: Elisson | Oct 3, 2006 7:27:44 PM

I am so moved to hear that Elroi Refael has made such an amazing recovery. He is clearly a most extraordinary young man.

In our shul we are very lucky to have a chazan (his day job is as a neurosurgeon) who really electrifies us with his beautiful, powerful and dramatic renditions of these prayers. I guarantee you could not just nod through Unesaneh Tokef if you heard him. It sends tingles through the spine...

Thanks for a beautiful and moving post.

Posted by: Judy | Oct 3, 2006 9:31:42 PM

Unetaneh Tokef - I love the intensity of it.

Posted by: jack | Oct 3, 2006 9:38:15 PM

I was standing in shul when someone came over to me and said that a specific part of the prayer we just said was very relevant today.

I looked at it again, and honestly still didn't understand what he meant. It didn't seem more relevant than the rest.

He pointed out the word 'Shvi' (Artscroll: 'Captive').

It took me a second to translate "captive" into "hostage" and how even today we need to pray for the release of our hostages/captives in Gaza, Lebanon, Iran, and North Carolina.

Posted by: JoeSettler | Oct 3, 2006 10:48:56 PM

Am I a bad father? When my 9 year-old complained that his feet hurt from standing during U-netaneh Tokef (at Rosh Hashanah), I told him the story of Rabbi Amnon.

I did not hear another complaint.

Posted by: Drew | Oct 4, 2006 12:09:14 AM

Beautiful post...I'm sure I will remember this story on Yamim Noraim to come while davening Unetaneh tokef. thank you.

Posted by: BubbyT | Oct 4, 2006 1:57:07 AM


This links you to some background on the story of Rabbi Amnon. There's been a lot of research done by historians on the origin and meaning of the story. The article by Ivan Marcus is good place to start. It's mentioned at the end of the webpage.

Posted by: deeni | Oct 4, 2006 4:56:08 AM

Wow! Now that was worth reading! Great to see you and the wonderful wife. We miss you guys...

Posted by: sarahb | Oct 4, 2006 7:48:12 AM

That is really a beautiful, moving and inspirational story! I'm saving some good thoughts for him and his family that he continues to improve and to make a full recovery. Thank you for sharing this!

Posted by: Yael | Oct 4, 2006 10:44:58 AM

Val... If you are talking about fidgeting and counting pages... probably. :-)

Andy... Indeed.

Marallyn... Yes, it was quite moving. It was one of the reasons I wanted to write about the experience... I didn't want to risk the memory fading.

Frummer???... Amen all around.

Seawitch... Yes indeed.

Essie... I am convinced that we witness miracles every day but fail to recognize them as such. One of my new year's resolutions is to be more alert.

JustPassingThrough... My wish is that chills (and all other feeling) also pass down Elroi's spine. :-)

Sandra... He still has a long way to go, but with his determination and G-d's help he should be OK.

Irina... Unfortunately many of the piyutim (poem-prayers) in the machzor are simply that... no great story behind them. It's up to us to create the frame of reference to make them meaningful. So far I've been only partially successful.

JSinger... As to the morbidity of the origins, I agree. There is a tendency of Jews to almost fetishize the persecution we have suffered since being dispersed. However, the goal is to force people to feel and be moved to action. A poem by itself will rarely have this effect.

Tracey... I was delighted to read of your own delivery from an evil decree. May you be granted continued good health til 120!

Psachya... You know, it's funny, but we tend to portray many of our enemies in such a similar fashion that they become almost caricatures of villains. I'm not sure this is a service to future generations since in doing so we erode the reality of the horrors we've suffered as a nation.

Bernie... You are, of course, free to define yourself in any way you wish. But it is my experience that under duress there are very few atheists in the world... especially ones who also self-define as Jews. Apply enough hardship and we are always looking for help from Someone (or at least someone to take the blame). :-) I appreciate your thoughts though.

Elisson... You seem like quite the utility infielder in your shul. I'm impressed!

Judy... Some day I will share a story about the most inspirational hazan I have ever heard. Quite a tale.

Jack... That, and also The reader's introduction ("Here I stand, poor and unworthy...")

Joe Settler... By North Carlina I assume you are referring to Jonathan Pollard. Between the two of us, I wouldn't mind a prisoner exchange whereby his former handler (a present-day MK) gets to live in his cell for a few years and Jonathan Pollard gets to sit in the Knesset. But that's just me. :-)

Drew... No, a bad father would tell his kids that Rabbi Amnon had his hands and feet cut off for not keeping his room tidy. :-)

BubbyT... then my work here is done. :-)

Deeni... I read the article you linked with interest. However, I was bothered by the shoddy scholarship of the author/compiler. Clearly the information was hastily cut and pasted from another (un-named) source or sources as it is printed twice in succession. Also, while it assumes the tone of authentic scholarship in its attempt to debunk the story of rabbi Amnon and the Bishop, it provides not one citation for the information. There is a bibliography, but no internal documentation (footnotes) to indicate where the actual information came from. I at least presented the information as a story I read in the machzor and left the door open for alternative theories. The person who collected or wrote the page to which you linked would like the reader to think he has done his homework... and he clearly has not.

Sarahb... It was great seeing you guys as well. May we only meet on happy occasions (preferably where food is being served). :-)

Yael... Thank you. I'm a big believer in the power of 'good thoughts'. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 4, 2006 11:20:44 AM

I just had to say thank you for posting this inspirational account of a modern day miracle. They DO happen, I know, I've witnessed many in my life, but the biggest, by far for me personaly, was two years ago when my son, Daniel, was in a similar situation. I will try to give the short version, but my son was in a near fatal drowning accident where he was under water (warm water in the summertime, not frigid waters), for approximately ten minutes and without breathing for between 15 and twenty minutes before help arrived. Needless to say his condition was critical, the doctors placed him on a respirator and gave us NO hope, for two months he was in the hospital, the first month of which he was in what the doctors referred to as "a continuous vegetative state, but we held onto G-D and many, many dear friends and family prayed with us the entire time for a miracle. Prayers went-up from Bet El, from Jerusalem, all over Israel, and from the Jewish community around the world, as well as a dear, dear friend who prayed for my son at the Kotel and placed a prayer for his recovery in the Wall. The doctors told us that our son, as we had known him, was gone, that he couldn't walk, talk, or even swallow, that his memory and personality were gone and that he would spend the rest of his life in a nursing home, if he survived at all. We just kept saying that G-D was going to heal our son and give him back to us and today he's almost 100%, only a tiny limp, a slight stutter, and a tiny bit of short-term memory lose remain. Just enough to remind us of what HaShem has done. Yes, I believe in miracles, and I believe in prayer. Thank you for posting this wonderful account of Elroi's miracle, it brought it all back again, and I praise HaShem for what he did for our son and what he has done, and is doing for Elroi and his family !! One more thought, one of the earlier comments mentioned Psalm 23, this was also interesting to me, because one of the key verses that we held onto during our son's miracle was Psalm 23, verse 3, "He renews my life;..." A wonderful post, thank you so very, very much for sharing !!! Elaine

Posted by: Elaine | Oct 4, 2006 12:53:29 PM

Everybody keeps mentioning Psalm 23, which is my favorite Biblical verses and most likely the most widely read poem in all of Western civilization. So allow me to go off-topic a bit and just recite it. Those who know even a little Hebrew (or know how to read Hebrew but don’t know what they’re saying) should definitely read it in the language it was written. The Hebrew is much more terse and emotional. Also, IMHO, many translations are terrible and simply distance the reader from the text. If you’re not going to read the original, the translation should be as close to your vernacular as possible and make the original as clear as possible. (That’s why I hate thee/thou in Biblical translation. Either read it in Hebrew, or translate it to the English people actually speak every day. I don’t need another layer of distance added by the translator.)

The dramatic break when the Psalmist stops addressing the Holy One in the third person and starts speaking to Him directly still gives me chills. I’ve always hoped that if I am ever in a really terrible situation in which I have nothing to do but wait, that I retain the presence of mind to recite the Psalm, in Hebrew.

Mizmor l’David.
A psalm of David
Hashem ro’ee, lo echsar.
The L-rd is my shepherd, I will not lack.
Binot deshe yarbitzeni,
He lies me down in green pastures,
Al mei menuchot yenchaleni.
He leads me by still waters.
Nafshi yeshovev,
He restores my soul,
Yanheni b’ma’aglei tzedek
He leads me in righteous paths
L’ma’an shemo.
For His name’s sake
Gam ki elech b’gei tzalmavet
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Lo ira ra
I will not fear evil
Ki ata imadi.
Because You are with me.
Shivtecha umishantecha
Your rod and Your staff,
Hema yenachamumi
They comfort me.
Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan neged tzorerai
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Dishanta bashemen roshi,
You anoint my head with oil,
Kosi revaya
My cup overflows.
Ach, tov vachesed irdefuni
O, goodness and mercy will follow me
Kol imei chai’ai
All the days of my life
V’shavti b’beit Hashem
And I will live in the house of the L-rd
L’orech yamim.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 4, 2006 4:08:48 PM

David-Thanks for posting the happiest Yom Kippur news I've read in ages. (Now to go pass the word around to the other members of our "Elroi support group", here and abroad.) Yesher Koach!

Posted by: jennifer | Oct 4, 2006 4:57:21 PM

I am one of the doctors who treated Elroi in the ICU in Soroka. Rarely we learn the ultimate outcome of the patients we treat. Thanks for the update. BTW I have a blog on the jpost site called "sleepless in the south" relating some of my experiences treating the sick and injured.

Posted by: Sagamore | Oct 4, 2006 5:12:57 PM

I had trouble with this. Had to let it settle for 24 hours.

It's a beautiful story of a moving lovely reality. Truly truly uplifting and inspiring.

It's the prayer part that dredged up niggling gremlins of unrest. Things I couldn't even identify beyond vague feelings of unrest.

Just when DOES the Lord answer prayer? He must, as we are told so. It's just I've seen so much UNanswered prayer. My dark side wants to screech, "So if several hundred people will beg long and loud enough He will deign to partially restore one brave self sacrificing decent man to some semblance of life?"

I hate that part of me. We've had a bad drought around here. After a decent year of rain two years ago after six years of bad drought before. We are all praying for rain. Good folks, many, watching their animals die and their bank accounts dwindling trying to buy feed for them. It will eventually rain but will God have anything to do with it?

Is it that He has removed himself so far from us or is it that we need to suffer? We have become so godless that only suffering will heal us?

I imagine that's how any god fearing Israeli feels every day.

I have no choice at all other than to be a man of faith. Life is empty and pointless without it .... and Him. But I do not understand.

Posted by: Scott | Oct 4, 2006 5:51:37 PM

Scott: I totally agree. That's why my comment was totally off topic. I have serious problems with petitionary prayer. The other soldiers who didn't recover, were they less pious? Did too few people pray for them? Of course not. We can only stand in wonder....

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 4, 2006 8:28:13 PM

Doctor Bean: I apologize if my quote from Psalm 23 offended you, I never intended that, I assure you. I was quoteing from my JPS English translation of the Tanakh, but I really don't see the big difference in the two, of course you are correct in wanting to get the closest translation that we possibly can, and yes, that is always the original Hebrew. I'm just afraid that in over analizing we sometimes miss the beauty. I never intended to offend anyone by commenting and sharing what experience we have had with the miracle of our son. I just wanted to share to encourage others that G-D does hear and answer prayers, maybe not always as we would like but according to His plans in each individual case. I was just so moved by Elroi's miracle, because I know what it feels like to be told by doctors that there is absolutly no hope and to have those same doctors look at you like your crazy when you won't except the evil decree. It's like it offends their intellect to believe that prayer could do what they sometimes cannot, by their own admission. You see I know how very difficult this had to be for Elroi's family because I've been through it. That brings me to the one other ingredient that we've not mentioned, Emuna, faith, without faith all the prayers in the world won't change anything. We must hold on to our emuna when everything says it's hopeless.
Scott: I can't answer why sometimes miracles like Elroi's happen and sometimes they don't. That's where emuna comes in, not only do we have to believe for the seeming impossible but we also have to believe that G-D has only good things for us, and that if our prayers go unanswered then it isn't G-D saying yes to some and no to others, it's just that in His great love, He has a special purpose for each of us, and He asks us to trust Him, that if He allows it, then somehow it is for our good. I don't have any right to try and answer this, but since I seem to have started this aspect of the discussion with my comments about my son's miracle, I felt I had to apologize if I offended anyone, and to attempt to answer your comments. Please forgive me for any mis-quotes or offence that I might have caused. I am not qualified to answer your questions. I only know that miracles do happen, prayers do get answered, and faith is the most important part. In closing I would like to go back to Psalm 23, the first verse, in Hebrew with the English translation from Doctor Bean's earlier comment, Psalm 23 and verse 1 says, "Hashem ro’ee, lo echsar."
"The L-rd is my shepherd, I will not lack."
I think the best answer I can give to these honest questions is this one verse. It all comes down to do we believe it or not, because if we do, then we have to believe that G-D is in control, and that however it goes, He is our loving shepard, and however He answers will always, ultimately, be for our best. It's all about having total faith in HaShem, and that He is good, and therefore can do nothing but good, whether we can see it at the time or not. Please forgive my feeble attempt at an answer, I guess I only have the right to answer for myself and the way I try to understand it, not for others, this is a personal question that each person ultimately must answer for themselves. I hope this doesn't offend anyone. I only wanted to share, and by so doing, to encourage others. Again, I am very happy for Elroi and his family. Thank you for this wonderful post. Elaine

Posted by: Elaine | Oct 4, 2006 10:45:13 PM

Scott and Dr. Bean -- while I truly appreciate your perspectives, I'd like to offer another....

I don't see "unanswered" or perhaps "negatively answered" prayer as an indication of lack of piousness, validity, or as a sign that the petitioner wasn't "good enough." I do, however, see the rare opportunities where we witness (even if perhaps we only think we do) miracles as a rare gift and as an affirmation of how and why we humans continue to hope and be hopeful.

As for petitionary prayer -- I remember when my Mother (z"l) was first diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer feeling incredibly awkward in saying Tehillim and praying for her good health. I have never been one to feel spiritually connected to Hashem through the recitation of others' words -- it has always felt a bit stilted and I have always found my connections in what I consider to be more "natural moments" -- appreciating a lovely sunset; a fragrant flower; bathing my kids... well... you get the drift....

Anyhoo.... I remember discussing this feeling awkward (what right did I, someone who doesn't engage in traditional forms of daily prayer -- and really had never made it a priority to do so?!) have to suddenly start petitioning Hashem JUST BECAUSE I WANTED SOMETHING?! (Aizoo chutzpah! I thought!) And you know -- a wise and good friend of mine and my husband's answered me "A) because it certainly could not hurt! and B) because in the same way that you wouldn't categorically deny your child simply because they don't necessarily make all your wishes/demands/routines THEIR priority -- so why would you assume that Hashem would categorically deny you when you are HIS child?"

I know it sounds a bit Pollyanna (okay a LOT!) but there you have it....Also there is the blah, blah, blah about "not being able to experience 'highs' if there are no 'lows" -- but then again, there is some truth to this too.....

Posted by: zahava | Oct 4, 2006 11:03:27 PM

Elaine: The translation didn't offend at all. I just loved that you brought up psalm 23 and it diverted me on a huge rambling tangent. The bit about translations was meant in general, not at all directed at you.

Zahava: I really appreciate your comments. I have much the same problem with the liturgy as you. Though none of my business, let me ask you two questions.

1) After getting this advice from your friend, how did you feel saying Tehillim (Psalms) for your mom? Did you feel spiritually connected? Was it a positive experience? Or I guess, asked in a different way: are you glad you prayed for your Mom's health?

2) Is your mom OK?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 5, 2006 12:19:41 AM

Also, while I certainly wouldn't deny my child's request because of their disobedience to me, I certainly wouldn't grant it just because she asked. I hope I would weigh the request on its merits, and if I were omnicient, the request would be unnecessary.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 5, 2006 12:37:05 AM

Elaine... Thanks so much for sharing your son's story. You are very fortunate to have gotten him back.

Doctor Bean... Wow! Slow day at the office? :-) Seriously, thanks for providing the translation and your take on such things.

Jennifer... You're very welcome. It was, quite literally, my pleasure to be able to do so. :-)

Sagamore... First off, it is an honor to be able to say a persoanl thank you to one of the doctors who contributed to Elroi's recovery. Second of all, I have to ask... Is your screen name after the resort on Lake George? Zahava once surprised me with an anniversary getaway there. Wonderful place. Thank you again for stopping by and leaving a comment.

Scott... I don't think it is so much a matter of G-d not answering everyone's prayers as it is that sometimes the answer is 'no'. If Elroi not recovered, we would have had to find comfort in the belief that his injury or even (G-d forbid) death was part of a larger plan.

Elaine... I didn't get the feeling that Doctor Bean was at all offended. In fact I think he enjoyed the fact that so many people find comfort in that Psalm.

Doctor Bean... Unfortunately, Zahava's mother was diagnosed quite late and she lost her fight. Some would say that G-d didn't answer our prayers. I choose to believe He did... but the answer was 'no'.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 5, 2006 12:41:22 AM

Sorry for all the rambling. One more thing.

"A) because it certainly could not hurt!"

Lots of things couldn't hurt and are unlikely to help: planting flowers in your mom's honor, lighting incense, having a cup of yummy soup, giving to charity, etc... We never do all of them. How do we pick? Maybe we do those that are consistent with our tradition/community. Maybe we just do whichever gives us comfort during miserable times. I certainly can't fault that...

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Oct 5, 2006 12:47:05 AM

I understand the distaste with petitionary prayer and frankly I gave up trying to figure much of this out.

Any time I have been involved in this kind of discussion someone tells me that sometimes "no means yes."

I find that to be as irritating in this situation as I did during my dating days.

In short I don't deign to speak for G-d and I am not real interested in anyone else trying to tell me what G-d thinks.

Now that I have rambled on I have to say that in the end I figure that there is no loss in asking G-d for personal favors. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

And beyond that if it provides you with comfort during hard times than it really seems like a good idea to me.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 5, 2006 3:07:04 AM

Doctor Bean: Think nothing more of it. I apologize that I mistook your comments for offence. I agree completely with you that the original Hebrew is always the ideal. Thank you for posting the Hebrew as well as the English translation, the verse becomes even more signifigent in the case of our son, as it reads, "Nafshi yeshovev",
"He restores my soul", and this is exactly what my son was in desperate need of, as it was his memory and personality that the doctors were saying were gone, forever, but praise HaShem, (as the following verse says, ..... "L’ma’an shemo",
"For His name’s sake"), this was the biggest part of the miracle for our son, getting his personality and his memory back, the things that make him who he is, his soul was restored. Thank you for posting Psalm 23 in the original Hebrew. It really does express what we experienced with our son in an even more beautiful light. It does add to the understanding and depth of the text. Feel free to engage in "a huge rambling tangent" (as you put it), anytime, I appreciate your ideas. I live to learn. Again, no offence taken.

Zahava: I loved the way you expressed your beliefs on this sometimes very difficult subject and I agree with your conclusions. I was very sorry to read of the loss of your Mother (z"l). I've also experienced this end of prayer too, the unanswered prayer. My Father (z"l), passed-away when I was only 19, I'm 43 now. I loved him very much, and I prayed the night he died, with all my heart, but it was not G-D'S will that he survive a massive heart attack, and we lost him. I don't know why some prayers are answered with miracles, and others seem to go unheard, but I do believe that HaShem has reasons, often that we can't know at this time, and we just have to trust Him. Our part is to have faith, to pray, to hope, and then whatever the outcome, to know that HaShem is in complete control, and that His purposes are ultimately for our good.

Treppenwitz: Once again, thank you for posting this wonderful account. We all need to be encouraged from time to time, and to hear that miracles do happen, that prayer is important, and to keep HaTikva alive in our hearts, this is what your post did for me, and obviously many, many others. Thank you for sharing this beautiful miracle. I have sometimes wondered in the past, why we would even bother to pray if we didn't have hope that HaShem hears and answers prayer, in whatever way He decides is best.

Posted by: Elaine | Oct 5, 2006 3:41:40 AM

You're absolutely right about my linked summary.
If you scroll down to the end of the 10/03 archives at "baraita" there's an entry worth reading. http://www.baraita.net/blog/archives/2003_10.html
I was too tired to type out the references in the bibliography on the initial webpage. These are scholarly and worth reading if you can find them: in Hebrew-- Qedushat hahayyim vekheruf hanefesh, ed. I. Gafni and A. Ravitzky (Jerusalem, 1993), 131-147. There's another seemingly really short article I haven't read-- S. Eidelberg, "The Historical Background to the Tale of R. Amnon and the Prayer Unetaneh toqef" in Hadoar 53 (1974) 646-646. And in English-- "Baptised Jews in German Lands in the Twelfth-Century" by Alfred Haverkamp in Jews and Christians in Twelfth-Century Europe.

Posted by: Deeni | Oct 5, 2006 5:12:50 AM

I haven't been able to blog in a bit, and this is the first post of yours I'm reading now that I can. I have chills going up and down my back and a tear coming down. Thank you - what an amazing story, person, and post.

Posted by: Ezzie | Oct 5, 2006 7:58:13 AM

Dr. Bean, in response to your question "did I feel more connected?" -- yes, actually, in a weird way I did. Not necessarily due to the text -- I felt connected because I was using the age-old tradition of our community to do the only "constructive" thing I COULD do in that situation to try and help....

The whole of it -- the actual prayer, the connection to community through prayer, the connection to tradition -- was (and still is) comforting. I still feel closest to Hashem when I am involved in other things -- baking for the chaggim, volunteering for a chessed project, gardening, snuggling the kids -- I almost think of those times as "our quality time" -- more personal and intimate. But, I no longer feel chutzpadik about the "asking" bit.

I have often thought that the whole "organized prayer thing" is as much about "din ben adam l'chavero" (the laws between man and his fellow man) as it is about our personal relationships with Hashem. Think about it -- we are taught that communal prayer is preferrable to the whole solo-thing (minyan and all) -- I honestly think that while part of it is a "strength in numbers thing" (think about when your kids gang up on you to hit you up with a crazy request, and then tell me THAT's not true!), that another major component is to further develop our relationships with our fellow man. In theory, it should be harder to be rude/dishonest/discompassionate to the guy (or gal) who stood next to you while you collectively ask Hashem for pretty much the same things -- health, brachot, parnassa....

Regarding my Mom (z'l) -- as David already told you, she passed away -- 12.5 years ago (6 weeks after Ariella was born). She was only 53. And even though in the finality of her passing, I don't feel like the answer to my prayers was a resounding NO! She had a very aggressive form of ovarian cancer -- and had been originally diagnosed in June of 1992. The doctors did not think she would make it to 1993 -- so, I am extraordinarily grateful that she managed to live to see the birth of her first grandchild in early 1994! And, incidentally, I DO see that as a bit of a miracle in and of itself.

In the month prior to Ariella's arrival, my mother underwent 2 emergency surgeries. If I remember correctly, the doctors didn't want to operate (they didn't think she'd survive the anesthesia) -- her oncological gynecologist told me (at the community service after shloshim) that he'd never seen sheer will carry someone so far or through such difficulty.

You can not imagine the depth of her joy from holding Ari -- or from the knowledge that she (Ari) was named for my Mom's Dad (Leibel/Leo z"l).... so who says that our prayers weren't answered -- at least partially?

And as Jack so wisely pointed out -- in addition to the whole Hashem/individual relationship and th whole individual/community relationship -- there is the idea that prayer can comfort -- when there is nothing else that we can possibly do to help/solve a problem, we CAN pray and in so doing, feel that we have done SOMETHING (no matter how small, or awkward, or seemingly insignificant) which is positive....

Posted by: zahava | Oct 5, 2006 8:33:04 AM

One last bit (perhaps to clarify) -- I think my discomfort with "organized prayer" is similar to my incredible discomfort at visiting my Mother's kever in that the cemetary is the LAST place where I can find a meaningful connection with my Mom -- she and I have no memories there. While I go (when I can - she is buried in the States) out of a deep sense of respect and tradition - I am always struck by the complete absense of "her" there. It feels empty, hollow -- like a hard, cold slap of nothingness in the face. It emphasizes the absence -- and for me a visit to the cemetary doesn't allow for ANY memory because the absence element becomes so deafeningly loud.

Likewise, prayer -- which often takes place in a man-made building feels (to me, anyways) like the last place on earth one would find Hashem. My personal feelings of connectedness, I guess, come more from being in places/situations where I feel Hashem's presence -- nature, family, joyous occasions.....

Of course, this is a bit paradoxical as we know/understand/are told that Hashem will reside among his people -- and where else do you find people, but in buildings..... Guess this further supports the whole "ben adam l'chevero" thing....

I find this thread interesting. Many of the comments have caused me to examine and analyze how I think about (and how I can articulate) my personal relationship with religion, my fellow man, and ultimately with Hashem. I apolgize for all the random meanderings and inability to articulate the gauzy ideas floating in my head... I guess, what all of it has made me realize is, I "feel" closer when I can say "thank you" as opposed to "please."

Posted by: zahava | Oct 5, 2006 8:46:55 AM


FWIW, I once wrote a post about moments in which I feel closest to Hashem.

I intentionally used a picture of Half Dome in Yosemite. With the exception of the birth of my children, most of the moments in which I have felt most connected are in some sort of outdoor setting.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 5, 2006 9:10:56 AM

Jack - what is the link? Was it a recent post - I went looking.... am interested in reading it.

Sorry about your evening, btw - hope the police catch this roof-hopping, tranquility-robbing creep soon!

Posted by: zahava | Oct 5, 2006 10:21:06 AM

Everyone on this last thread:
If I might beg your patience for just one last thought on this subject, I would like to add one more comment. I have experienced many of these questions in my own life, and these are very difficult sometimes to articulate, but I believe that HaShem desires that we come to Him with our petitions as well as our prayers of thankfulness. We have discussed the reading of the Psalms in this thread, and I would pointout that the Psalms are often petitionary in nature when you think about it. I'm afraid that when we become uncomfortable with asking petitions of G-D, we may actually be distancing ourselves from Him. The way that I read the scriptures, HaShem wants each of us to draw closer to Him, to seek to know Him, to need Him, and to be constantly aware that we do need Him. As a Mother it warms my heart to be able to do things for my three children, it would sadden me if they would not come to me when they have a need in their lives. Communal prayer should bind our hearts together as community and does, but I think because of the routine aspect of these communal prayers, we sometimes are not moved by them as perhaps we should be. But, this is what made the account of Elroi's miracle so beautiful and profoundly emotional in David's post. When Elroi walked forward and recited the words of the prayer, suddenly something deeper happened. The hearts of all those present were moved, and became, for that moment, as one, and this is when I think communal prayer is so powerful, when it achieves this oneness, it is at these special moments that I believe HaShem is the most happy with His children, and at moments like this when the hearts are touched, (like when Elroi walked forward and recited the words of the prayer himself), and in perfect union, that miracles can and do take place. This is really what I think it's all about, becoming one in prayer and thankfulness to HaShem. Please know that this is only my feeble attempt to express my understanding of this issue, and I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to take part in this most fascinating discussion. Thanks to everyone, you've given me much to consider.

Posted by: Elaine | Oct 5, 2006 10:33:21 AM

Elaine -- your most recent comment reminds me of a shock I had the first time I read through the notes my Mother kept of my first year in my "baby book." My mother (an extremely hands-on parent, to say the least!) expressed consternation and frustration at my desire to be more independent than was comfortable for her (ex. she wanted to feed me, I wanted to wield the spoon myself).... and she wrote frankly that she sometimes took my desire to be self-sufficient as a rejection of her.

Obviously, in the subsequent years, we worked out that my desire to be independent was not a rejection of her - there is nothing that would prevent me from having gone to my Mom (or my Dad now, for that matter) if I needed something. I know that I can ask ANYTHING.

Still.... I feel more complete when I can OFFER something rather than asking FOR something, and definitely feel that this desire to "thank" is deeply rooted in the knowledge that I CAN always ask....

Posted by: zahava | Oct 5, 2006 12:09:58 PM

David, thank you for this beautiful post, and continued wishes for a refuah shlemah to Elroi. Next time, though, please post a tissue warning -- I can type well enough with a lump in my throat, but tears make it a bit of a challenge.

Whether or not the dreadful story about Rabbi Amnon is actually true, Jewish history unfortunately shows us all too well that it easily could be.

I have a strong attachment to "U-netaneh tokef" for musical reasons. As a child I was in the temple choir, and our rabbi, who was also the choir director, had escaped from Berlin before or during World War II. He loved music and was a fine singer, and he took his sheet music with him. (His wife also fled Berlin as a young girl, just after Kristallnacht; I still shiver whenever I remember the talk she gave to our class about the things she saw that night.) I remember sitting in rehearsal at twelve years old, learning completely unfamiliar Hebrew texts from German transliterations of Ashkenazic Hebrew (which we were then asked to adapt to modern Sephardi pronunciation), some of them written in Gothic script. It was quite a challenge.

In our shul, the Leader Minyan, we used the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Who By Fire" (itself based on "U-netaneh tokef) and Yair Rosenblum's arresting melody that commemorates the eleven members of Kibbutz Bet ha-Shitta who were killed during the Yom Kippur War.

(I have a special attachment to "Who By Fire" as well -- it was responsible for the existence of my CD -- but that's another story. I'll post it one day.)

Posted by: Rahel | Oct 5, 2006 12:51:01 PM

I see what your saying and I do understand. I just feel that both asking and thanking are a part of our relationships, and this brings great joy and satisfaction on both sides of the relationship. I think it is no different with our relationship to HaShem, both are essential elements of the equation. I thoroughly enjoy your insight and appreciate that perhaps my understanding is some what off the accepted norm, but I appreciate your allowing me the privilege to be a part of this discussion. I have truely enjoyed it, and I wanted to add that, I think you and David have an awesome blog !! I loved all the articles and I especially enjoyed the pictures of your family. Little Yonah reminds me of my grandson, Justin. BTW, I never have been able to hold him and get medicine down him either !! When he clamps his mouth shut, let me tell you, it's shut !!! LOL He's just turned three !! Justin is the son of my son Daniel (whom I wrote about). Again, I love your blog !! Elaine

Posted by: Elaine | Oct 5, 2006 1:01:20 PM

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