Michael Kagan

SOS – Save Our Souls: God who did NOT answer us…answer us now!

I prayed on Yom Kippur in the Leader Minyan named after the founders: Avraham, Selig z”l and Even Leader. It can be defined as a neo-Hasidic minyan that meets once a month and the High Holy Days. Its praying style is slow and intense with great emphasis on singing the peyutim (hymns) to the tunes of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and ethnic Sephardi tunes.  In its heyday it drew hundreds of people from around Jerusalem eager to experience joyous prayer.  It can also be highly irreverent or what we prefer to call Holy Chutzpah, that is irreverent for the sake of reverence.

It is the night of Yom Kippur.  The Aikido dojo that we rent is packed to overflowing.  People who regularly go to other synagogues, people who regularly go to no synagogue, and people who go regularly to no other synagogue, are here to pray together, to be together, to sing together, to cry together.  Kol Nidre, the awesome prayers for the annulment of all vows that we have or might have made during the year that prevent us from moving on with our lives, from truly connecting with God, with the world, with ourselves, has concluded.  The prayer leader has moved us into the evening service.  We have completed the Shema declaration of the unity of God, passed through the silent Amidah prayer that blesses the holiness of the day and concludes with the confessional prayers particular to Yom Kippur: “for all the sins we have committed knowingly and unknowingly…” The list is long.  And then comes the repetition of the silent prayer by the prayer leader – the Chazzan.  This is also particular to Yom Kippur, usually there is no communal repetition of the silent prayer at night.  But this night is different from all other nights, for on this night all of Israel stands together beseeching forgiveness.  In our case the Chazzan is a husband and wife team that alternate in leading the peyutim (hymns).  Their voices are sublime and their focus and intentions are palpable. One peyut after the other.  And between every hymn the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are repeated and repeated.

Hashem, Hashem (Infinite One, Infinite One), God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error and who cleanses. (Exodus 34:5-7)

The room sways in the storm of joy and trepidation.  We pass through the uplifting “Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are we in Your hands…” Tears flow freely like the sparkling of the stars.  Faces glow brightly like the quarter moon outside.  Memories, memories flood the decks of our minds, bodies and souls.   Passing close to the reefs of another set of confessions brings us to the Aneynu – Answer us! – set of peyutim.   These are almost hypnotic repetitions of the universal cry for help: SOS! – Save Our Souls!

He who answered our father Abraham on Mount Moriah

May He answer us!

They then break with tradition by adding the trials and tribulations of our mothers and step-brother.

He who answered our mother Sarah at the hands of Pharaoh and Avimelech

May He answer us!

He who answered his son Isaac when he was bound on top of the alter

May He answer us!

He who answered his son Ishmael when lost in the desert

May He answer us!

He who answered our mother Rebbecah when she prayed for a child

May He answer us!

He who answered Jacob in Bet-El

May He answer us!

And so it went on, example after example of when God answered the prayers of our Biblical ancestors. And then it came to the last line, the closing line, the peak line.  The two prayer leaders slowed the beat, their voices synchronized in tear-jerking pathos.

He who answered all the righteous, the devout, the innocent, the upright

May He answer us!

The individuals in the room were merging, merging into a Oneness of harmony, merging into the mystical Knesset Yisrael – the collective consciousness of Israel.  And then, at that moment I felt the spring (maayan) open inside me. It couldn’t be stopped; I didn’t want it to be stopped; out gushed the words.  I didn’t shout, I didn’t need to, my voice just rippled across the surface of untroubled waters.

He who did NOT answer us during the time of the Shoah (Holocaust)

May He Answer us now!

I couldn’t help it, it rose to the surface like a bubble of life-giving oxygen, it needed to be said, this is what it means to be Chosen.  Everything froze.  The prayer leaders froze.  The harmonies froze.  The swaying froze.  Time froze.  And then it started, it was as if I had thrown a pebble (or rock) into a perfectly still body of water that perfectly reflected the moon and stars.  The destruction of a perfect Zen moment.  I heard a few whispers and sighs, and cries, and gasps, and tears.  The chazzan tried to continue but his voice broke. His wife tried but she didn’t have the strength.  Moments of panic, moments of chaos, moments of truth.  And then the moment passed; they found their voices that lay hiding somewhere in the shadows and continued the next peyut, sung in ancient Aramaic:

The Merciful One who answers the poor,    May He answer us

The Merciful One who answers the brokenhearted,    May He answer us

The Merciful One who answers the humble of spirit,   May He answer us

O Merciful One have pity on us…

But I had said it.  I had dared.  It would never be the same.

Two weeks later a woman came up to me and told me that she had been at the Kol Nidra service and that she had heard me: “You said what I never dared even to think but in my heart was crying out to say. I’ve been crying ever since; tears of sadness mixed with tears of joy.  Thank God.”

About the Author
Michael Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim), God’s Prayer (Albion-Andalus) and The King’s Messenger (Albion-Andalus Books). He is a scientist, entrepreneur, film-maker and teacher of Holistic Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.