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Day of Judgment

A new poetic translation of the High Holy Day prayers, Unetaneh Tokef and B’Rosh Hashanah Yikatevun, by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen in an extract from his new book The Machzor in Poetry

The Machzor in Poetry: A Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Companion, Jeffrey M.Cohen, Gnesia Publications, £15.95

    The potent sanctity of this day –
    So awesome and fearful –
    Let us relay.
    On it Your kingship
    Is universally hailed,
    As is Your throne,
    With our prayers
    Assailed.
    You judge,
    You know,
    You testify;
    You record,
    You let
    Nothing slip by.
    The good deeds
    We ourselves forgot,
    Loom large,
    To create a happy lot.
    Your chronicle is read,
    In detail fine;
    Man’s signature confirmed
    On the final line.
    The great shofar’s sound
    Reverberates.
    But it’s the thin, calm voice
    That berates
    Man as he stands,
    Awaiting sentence
    At Your hands.

    An awesome moment –
    Even the angels quake,
    Fearful of their own mistake,
    Some act of spiritual dereliction –
    Some error in choral praise
    Or diction.
    Before You file
    All men like sheep,
    Following on behind;
    With You, the shepherd,
    Observing all -
    Their deserved fate,
    Assigned.

    ***

    On Rosh Hashanah
    Every deed is named.
    On Yom Kippur,
    Signed, sealed,
    Proclaimed:
    How many shall die
    Or be born?
    Whose premature death
    Leaving many to mourn?
    Who’ll die by water,
    Who by war?
    Who by fire,
    Or the wild beast’s claw.
    Who by famine,
    Who by drought?
    By natural disaster,
    Who’ll be caught out?
    Who by plague,
    Who by strangulation?
    Who by stoning
    Or assassination?
    (Who by a driver’s
    Rash decision,
    Causing a sudden,
    Fatal collision?
    Who by a drug
    Overdosed,
    Who by illness
    Undiagnosed?
    Who by the terrorist’s
    Bomb or gun,
    Slaying a parent,
    Daughter or son?)
    Who shall be calm,
    And who stressed?
    Who shall be harried,
    And who shall have rest?
    Who shall be poor –
    In their own eyes –
    Or brimming with confidence,
    Up to the skies?
    Whose wealth shall grow
    Overnight?
    Who shall suffer
    Penury’s plight?
    Which public figure
    Shall fall from grace,
    And which unknown shall become
    A national face?

    But penitence, prayer,
    And being charitably aware,
    Prompt God to withdraw,
    The sentence raw.

    ***

    Man’s origin
    Is of the dust;
    Full of envy
    And of lust.
    His destiny
    Is to return,
    To the abyss,
    And the worm.
    With stress
    He earns
    His livelihood –
    The legacy
    Of flesh and blood.
    Man is like
    A broken shard,
    A withered grass –
    From joy debarred -
    A faded flower,
    A passing shade;
    A cloud disgorging –
    Age-decayed.

    Man blows
    Hot and cold;
    Through life
    Staggering,
    As if blindfold;
    His dreams elusive,
    When he’s old.

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