Who by Fire, Who by Water?

We in the Jewish community just finished our High Holiday season — Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Since I was about five years old, I have attended services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur every year of my life. When we lived in Manhattan and belonged to a large synagogue there, I timed my toilet break on those holidays for when preparations began for the Torah or Haftorah reading. In the years I smoked, I also rushed outside and ran around the corner to sneak a cigarette. (Yes, smoking is forbidden on Yom Kippur, as well as eating and drinking). Over the past few years, my husband and I have “attended” High Holiday services via Zoom or TV live streaming because of Covid restrictions and because our small Jewish fellowship doesn’t hold its own services for those holidays.

Jewish Holiday Rosh hashanah honey and apples with pomegranate
By ungvar

My usual response to the onset of these holidays was, “It’s not that time again, is it? Has another year gone by already?”  The holidays always occur during the transition from summer to autumn. As the holidays are scheduled according to the lunar calendar, the dates change every year, and, as we Jews like to say, they either come early or late; they never come on time. During this change of seasons, when we attended services in person, my major decision was choosing what to wear. Summer clothes or fall? Those were usually the primary thoughts I had about the upcoming High Holidays.

Two solid days and evenings are required. Yom Kippur, especially, is never pleasant, long, grueling, and difficult if one chooses to fast. I have just mechanically gotten through these services and days without thinking much about them. Yes, during these services, we think about our lives and wonder – sort of – who will live and who will die. Who will be inscribed in the book of life? But I never took these questions literally.

jewish holiday background with old book and landscape concept photo
By denisgo

Photo by denisgo

The Rosh Hashanah prayer called Unah Tanah Tokef asks:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,

On Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;

Who shall live and who shall die;

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;

Who shall perish 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;

Who shall be secure and who shall be driven;

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled,

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich;

Who shall be humbled and who exalted.

But modern life for middle- to upper-class white and privileged Americans has always been pretty predictable and safe. We assume “probably nothing too bad” will happen to us. Everything’s going pretty well… No strangling, no wild beasts nearby, no swords, no earthquakes…

…Hey, wait a minute. This year was different.

We live in Ft. Myers, Florida, which was recently badly hit by Hurricane Ian. Suddenly our tranquil, predictable lives were upended. Thousands have lost homes, automobiles, furniture and other belongings, jobs, and other sources of income. Indeed many, at least 119 by the most recent estimate, did die during the storm, most of them “by water.” Yes. Drowning!


Our wonderful, routine, calm life has been rudely interrupted, tragically interrupted for thousands now homeless and unable to cope with the trauma they experienced. As a result, the High Holidays are now more meaningful to me. Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, addresses the uncertainty of life, the vicissitudes of life, how we hang by a thread, and how life can change on a dime. However one wants to phrase it. 

In a story in our Rabbinic tradition, a rabbi is reciting the prayer one is supposed to say on the last day of one’s life. His student overhears him and asks the rabbi why he is saying that prayer. “This isn’t the last day of your life,” the student points out.

“We should say this prayer every day,” the rabbi responds, “Because you never know when it will be the last day of your life.”

Indeed, you just never know.

The longer I live and partake in Jewish rituals and life, the more I am amazed at how relevant and prescient our ancient Jewish tradition is. The writers of the Jewish Bible and the oral tradition that followed understood it all. Life has never changed since humankind has existed. Floods, hurricanes, sinkholes, wars, famine, killings, jealousy, sex, money, power, and revenge: nature and people have always been the same. Yes, we now have computers, air conditioning, pest control, and vaccines. But, as the writer of Ecclesiastes, which we read during the autumn holiday season on Sukkoth, points out, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

In this image made from a NASA live stream, Hurricane Ian is seen from the International Space Station on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida near Cayo Costa on Wednesday as a catastrophic Category 4 storm. (NASA via AP

In this image made from a NASA live stream, Hurricane Ian is seen from the International Space Station on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida near Cayo Costa on Wednesday as a catastrophic Category 4 storm. (NASA via AP)

Life is uncertain and fragile. Dangerous. It always has been and always will be.

The overall message of the High Holidays – indeed of Judaism itself, even the glum Book of Ecclesiastes – is that life is precious. We must be thankful for life, and above all, we must have hope. 

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