And Whom Shall I Say is Calling?

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Never Trust a Poet

In my newly acquired but eclectic music habits I often stumble across gems that trigger mystical ruminations that haunt me for days afterwards.  I have often quipped that I never trust poets and balladeers because they’ll story you.  It is a bit of tongue-in-cheek because I have known honest poets and musicians.  They do exist.

But one jewel comes from Leonard Cohens last album You want it Darker.  It was taken from an ancient prayer said on Kol Nidre (All Vows) where all careless vows are annulled.  The prayer is called U’Netaneh Tokef, “Let us Ascribe Power.”  Cohens rendition of the prayer is called “Who By Fire or Flame”

There has been some debate over the æons about the theology presented in the prayer, but if you understand the mind of mystics, the theology isn’t all that farfetched. It is believed in both Jewish theology and some Christian theology that there are two books that God recites from. One is the book of Life, and the other is the book of deeds. The meaning of the books is a bit different among the various disciplines, but essentially, they are a record of each life … and the most curious of all to me is the Book of Life. Apparently, it began with names of people slated for life, but those names can be blotted out, assuming for infractions.

In the rite, the names were in the book at Rosh Hashanah, and sealed at Yom Kippur for the upcoming year. I’ll leave the debate up to the theologians, but I know what the rite, the prayer and Master Cohens rendition mean to me.

Hear is the prayer from the prayer book:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed –
Who will live and who will die;
Who (will die) at the end of his days and who (before) the end of his days;
Who by fire and who by water;
Who by sword and who by beast;
Who by hunger and who by thirst;
Who by earthquake and who by plague
Who by strangling and who by stoning…
But repentance, prayer and charity cancel the harsh decree.

בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן
מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת.
מִי בְקִצּו וּמִי לא בְקִצּו
מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ
מִי בַחֶרֶב. וּמִי בַחַיָּה
מִי בָרָעָב. וּמִי בַצָּמָא
מִי בָרַעַשׁ. וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה
מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה…
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה
מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה


And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

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