On Falling Off the Horse - Rosh HaShanah 5780
There is one scenario, and only one scenario, in which I have perfect posture: on the back of a horse. My mother grew up riding horses, and when I was a girl, I begged her for riding lessons. For around six years, she and I went out at least once a week (rain or shine) on horses that we loaned from a local stable. Sometimes it was just the two of us, and sometimes we went out with friends - we would ride along the fields to see the cows, pick blackberries from bushes, and gallop down this huge stretch of land that led back to the stables. They’re some of my best childhood memories. I rarely find myself around horses nowadays, but when I do get the opportunity to sit in a saddle again, it’s like I can still hear my mother’s voice in my ear saying: ‘Back straight; heels down. Back straight; heels down.’For those of you who haven’t spent much time riding, it might not be obvious why one’s heels should be down in the stirrups. You might assume that the stirrup, the footpiece, would fit just in front of your heel - that’s a mistake that people sometimes make. But if the stirrup is here, it should be sitting behind your toes, with your heels pushing downwards. This doesn’t really help with the process of riding terribly much. What it helps with is falling. If your foot is held like this in the stirrup, it means that when you fall from the horse, your feet slip out of the stirrups. I’m sure that you can imagine why you want your foot to slip easily from the stirrup when falling from a horse - it avoids injuries in multiple ways. And any seasoned rider can tell you that it’s only a matter of time until you fall from the horse. There’s no question of ‘if’ you will fall - there’s only a question of ‘when’ you will fall. When you fall, you need to fall well. You need to wear a helmet to protect your head - hopefully that one is obvious. You need to roll while you fall, because that lessens impact, and you need to roll away from the horse. And every second that you’re on that horse, your feet should be held in a position that allows you to fall well.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about falling well - specifically, in the context of the Unetaneh Tokef. The Unetaneh Tokef is a medieval piyyut, a liturgical poem that we read during the Musaf Amidah of the High Holy Days, and it’s among the most famous of all of the special High Holy Day prayers. We’ll be reciting it in just a few minutes. If you’d like to see it now, you can find it on page 240 of the Machzor. It’s a poem that speaks to one of the great metaphors of this season - God as Judge, looking at our lives, and writing our names into either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. After the haunting poetry of judgment in those first two paragraphs, we ask a series of questions. ‘Who will live, and who will die? Who by fire - who by water? Who by sword - who by beast, or hunger, or thirst, earthquake, or plague? Who will rest, and who will wander? Who will be at peace, and who will be tormented?’ And the answer, of course, is just beyond our ability to know. We’re being called to face one of the most difficult realities of the human experience: that we don’t have control over our fates. You could live another decade, another three decades, or die tomorrow. This truth is something that we spend most of our time ignoring, because it would drive us mad to be constantly aware of the chaos. But here, in this threshold moment between the year that was and the year that will be, we’re called to take note of our fragility, and the fragility of those around us. We don’t know who will still be here next year. Everything could change at any moment, and we might not see it coming.
And then, in an incredible moment, the poetry turns around and apparently grants us some modicum of power. ‘Ut’shuvah, ut’fillah, utz’dakah’, it says, ‘ma’avirin et-ro’a hag’zeirah’. This is usually translated with, in my opinion, some slight of hand, into something like ‘but repentance (t’shuvah), prayer (t’fillah), and just deeds (tzedakah) - can annul the evil decree’. In the English of our Machzor, we have something a little better: ‘But penitence, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.’ This is closer, but still, I think, somewhat misleading. First of all, the verb just isn’t as strong as ‘annul’. ‘Ma’avirin’ means something closer to ‘cause to pass over’ - it can mean that something is made to pass away, but we have other, better words for ‘annul’. And furthermore, what is being ‘annulled’? ’Et-roa hag’zeirah’ certainly cannot mean ‘the evil decree’, because - pay attention, grammar fans - it’s two nouns in smichut - that is, ‘noun of noun’. Here, it’s ‘the evil of the decree’. Even in our translation, which tries to maintain the nouns - ‘annul the severity of the decree’ - the implication is that the decree itself is lessened in some way - it’s made less severe, less intense. But I think it’s clear in the Hebrew that the decree stays - what is taken away is the evil. ‘Ma’avirin et-roa hag’zierah’ - these things can cause the evil of the decree to pass away.
If the text wanted to say that those three actions - t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah; repentance, prayer, and acts of justice - change our fates, that would have been very easy because the original text that this is drawing from says precisely that. The original text, which is found in Genesis Rabbah (in one of the classical works of midrash, of creative rabbinic interpretation), says as follows: those three things ‘m’vat’lin g’zeirot ra’ot’. They ‘m’vat’lin’ - there’s a word that actually means ‘annul’ - ‘g’zeirot ra’ot’ - noun and adjective - they ‘annul evil decrees’. If the anonymous author of the Un’taneh Tokef had wanted to tell us that these acts annul evil decrees - that they change our fates, give us control over the world around us - he wouldn’t have changed a word. But he did. Instead, we have what I think is a stunningly theologically sophisticated statement. If we engage in repentance, and prayer, and acts of justice, we can cause the evil of the decree to pass us by. What changes is not the chaos. It’s us. That’s the power that we have - the power to fall well.
Teshuvah, t’fillah, and tzedakah. Those are the ways in which we sit up straight and angle our heels downwards in the stirrup. Teshuvah - repentance, self-betterment, healing of relationships with one another and with ourselves. This is what helps us to understand ourselves and our needs, and what helps us to be able to depend on one another. Tefillah - prayer; engaging in regular moments of gratitude, of searching ourselves, of connecting to the Holy One and to the holiness that permeates the entire universe. This is what allows us to imbue meaning into the world, to see everything as a miracle, and to ensure that after the despair we can re-engage with the value of life. And tz’dakah; acts of justice, ensuring that the world is made a better place for the fact that we are in it. This is the greater impact of the human experience. These actions, according to the Un’taneh Tokef, are what prepare us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to ensure that when awful things occur, when we’ve lost power over our lives, when we’re in despair - we fall well. We fall in the least damaging way possible. We’re not trying to avoid falling, because it’s an unavoidable part of the human experience - but we try to fall in a way that puts us in the best position to stand up again, and keep going.
The metaphor that you are probably the most familiar with when it comes to riding horses is that saying, ‘get back on the horse’. This is taken quite seriously. I remember the first time that I ever fell off a horse. I was eleven at most, and in a riding school with an instructor. I remember that the fall hurt. And that as soon as the horse was calmed and the instructor was sure that I wasn’t seriously injured, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was getting back up there. I was shaken and I didn’t want to, but wasn’t given much of a choice. You see, the reason that stern instructors make shaken 11-year-old girls get straight back up there is that the longer you wait, the more difficult it is. The longer you let the fear settle in, the bigger a deal the whole thing seems. And before you know it, you’re a 12-year-old girl who’s never riding again. It’s easy to get stuck in that fear once you’ve hit the ground.
Our tradition is filled with stories of people getting stuck in response to their own lack of control over the universe. One of the stories of this season, which we’ll read on Yom Kippur, is the story of Jonah. I find the character of Jonah fascinating, because Jonah is probably the most successful prophet of all of Jewish history. His prophesying causes a whole city to repent and turn back to God - there’s no other prophet with those kinds of numbers. But the last thing that Jonah wanted to be was a prophet, and he has to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way. Jonah’s lack of control over his fate is an insurmountable problem to him, even though his fate is a pretty good one. So there’s no happy ending to Jonah’s story. Even after his successful prophecy, Jonah cannot be happy with bringing all of these people to live good lives, and instead he continues to rage against prophesying even after his task has been fulfilled. Jonah is unable to see his own success, because he’s too busy stuck in the first few lines of the story - of God calling him to prophesy against his wishes. And that’s where he stays, forever, every year that we read the Book of Jonah. Crystallized in fear of prophecy for so long that he never realises that he’s finished and that his success is unparalleled. He’s paralysed there, in that moment of fear of his own lack of control.
T’shuvah. T’fillah. Tz’dakah. These are the three pieces of advice that we’re given for how to ensure that we don’t live like Jonah. Take stock of your wrongs, in the flaws in your relationships, and heal them. Pay attention to what you have in front of you and be grateful for it. And try to make the world a better place. It doesn’t give us control over the chaos, but it allows us to let the chaos pass us by. It allows us to face the fact of own lack of control and live with it. It prepares us so that we do fall, we fall well - when we are injured from it, we are able to heal - and as soon as we can, we pull ourselves back up again.
Back straight. Heels down.