The most chilling song I have ever heard is Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” His deep, haunting voice is perfect for the lyrics, which acknowledge that none of us knows how our lives will come to an end. In case we are morbidly curious, the song lists some possibilities: “Who by fire, who by water, who for his greed, who for his hunger.” And it gets darker: “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand.” For those familiar with the legendary Canadian singer/songwriter, it’s not the only time he takes us to that place we have been trying to avoid.
But this idea wasn’t actually his. Cohen, well versed in Jewish practice and liturgy, based these lyrics on a dramatic piece of the High Holy Day liturgy called the “Unetanetokef.” The prayer is named for its powerful, opening words, “Now, we declare the sacred power of this day.” The Unetanetokef brutally reminds us of how fragile we are by asking who, in the year to come, will live on and who shall die. Who will die by the sword, and who by the beast. It sounds like a dirge, adding to the drama of the prayer. The perfect melding of these two artful pieces, the prayer and the song, is when some synagogues sing the Unetanetokef to Cohen’s melody.
The tough part of this piece of liturgy, theologically speaking, is that it sounds like all of this is preordained: On Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed! I think the prayer is saying something else. In a world in which we think we are totally in control, we have to be reminded from time to time that we aren’t. The High Holy Days bring our mortality front and center.
From the Yom Kippur fast that makes us feel like we are barely alive to the custom of wearing white or even a kittel, a burial garment, we are asked at this time of year to face our mortality and fragility head on. Hopefully, that confrontation affects how we will enter the New Year and how we will live our lives. Both the prayer and Leonard Cohen’s version are a calling to keep it all in perspective and thank our lucky stars that we are alive another day.
P.S. If you haven’t heard the song, check out a great rendition from YouTube before the holidays: