The chazzan begins to hum the familiar tune of Unetaneh Tokef. Familiar, not because I’ve heard its melody in shul for the past few decades, but it is a part of me as I see its consequences every waking day of my life.
As the Associate Director of Project Chai, Chai Lifeline’s Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department, as well as the mental health responder for Hatzalah in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, I am involved in responding to every type of crisis, trauma and tragedy that affects the Jewish community locally, nationally and internationally.
I turn to this epic piyut and the words jump off my machzor’s page.
Unetaneh Tokef. Let us begin to relate the power of the day’s holiness, to the power of the tefilla’s meaning…but do we really? Can we, with our litany of requests from Hashem, really connect with the concept that it’s a “Yom…norah v’ayom—A day of awe and fright?” Not just a day to put in our demands for the coming year.
The images continue. Kevakarat roeh edro, like a shepherd tending His flock….
All those who surround me look into their machzorim and imagine sheep following sheep, being counted, calculating their worth, to be chosen for life, or death. I, too, can’t erase the visions of flocks of pure white, but I think not of the snowy white lambs, but of the ivory souls of children whose lives I embraced, nurtured and mourned over the past 19 years. I close my tear-filled eyes and see how each part of Unetaneh Tokef is enumerated. I see a child lost, a family forever changed. The powerful meaning of the words stings my soul.
The only salve to that pain is expression. Perhaps through sharing some of my experiences, albeit painful to hear, you will be inspired to find true meaning in the words and together we can daven, scream, beseech Avinu Av HaRachaman to put an end to all the tzaros of klal Yisrael.
Kama ya’avrun vichama yi’ba’re’un
How many will be passed over and how many will be created.
It is hard to imagine that many parents chanted this very prayer just one year ago, never fathoming that the lives of their children hung in the balance on that Rosh Hashanah day.
B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun, u’ve’Yom Tzom Kippur yi’chatei’mun.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Mi yich’yeh umi yamut
Who will live and who will die?
These are not just words to countless families who struggle now to live with the new reality of an altered family structure. They lost a piece of their collective heart.
Mi ve’kitzo, u’mi lo ve’kitzo
Who in the right time, and who prematurely?
Is any age the right time?
Can one conceive of a son dying at three or even 33 years old?
Young! How can that be the right time? Barely past an upsherin, there is a bar mitzvah, yeshiva,wedding all scheduled for the future! And then children of his own. After all, we davened l’Torah l’chuppah u’le’maasim tovim at his brit. He needs more time! Potential good deeds, no longer viable. What about a bat mitzvah girl killed tragically in an instant? A mother’s dream of walking her daughter to her destiny to building a bayit ne’eman now shattered.
What of those parents who never made the kiddush or brit at the right “time” as their journey to physical parenthood ended before birth? The death of a child is never ve’kitzo for a grieving parent, however our emunah that Hashem only knows vr’kitzo, the right time for each, sustains us.
Who by water?
Playful and joyous are the visions of our children swimming and boating on hot summer days. I shudder at visions of those drowning victims. Beautiful photographs flash before me. I only meet these families immediately after the tragedy. I walk into a home and see frames filled with pictures of toothless grins, group shots at family barbecues, or moments preserved from visiting day.
Who by fire?
I tremble as my mind pictures the faces of seven siblings, cherubic countenances lost, engulfed by flames.
Who by sword?
How could praying shacharit end in a bloodbath? Why should returning home from the dorm on Thursday be a deadly proposition for our three yeshiva boys? Why should a young girl’s return from an oneg Shabbat change her life forever as she discovers most of her family massacred? A European grocery trip turned deadly is unfathomable. Deaths from violence, brutal murder and unprovoked evil are unheard of to our peaceful tribe of Israel. I smell the stench of its consequences too often, whether I am intimately involved with the bereaved family, or apprised of the countless incidents of trauma caused by terror attacks in Israel, France or America. Whether there in person or when victims’ communities reach out to our organization, physical distance is never a barrier for us to give professional advice which sometimes manifests as a personal hug across the globe.
Mi va’cherev yields untimely ends as a doctor’s scalpel intending to heal ends life because Hashem, the ultimate Rofeh, decides otherwise.
Who by beast?
A young child attacked by wildlife in the otherwise idyllic countryside. Hashem Yishmor.
Mi va’ra’av, umi va’tzama
Who by hunger, who by thirst?
It’s mind boggling to consider starvation in our neighborhoods. But in the 21st century, in the suburbs, a cornucopia of food can never revive those deteriorating from an eating disorder. On Yom Kippur, my 25-hour fast begs thirst-quenching life of water, yet my body’s needs are dulled by the pain of remembering the vision of a father watching a living skeleton, his preteen daughter, as she fades away before his eyes. And what of those children who died from food-related deaths: choking, allergic reactions or food-borne contamination?
Who by calamity?
Hurricanes, torrential floods, earthquakes. New York, Texas, Nepal. Natural disaster doesn’t discriminate by global zip code. A family losing the safety of their home is something I’ve seen too often in my line of work. It’s heart wrenching to witness the demise of stability, the casualties and loss expressing itself in a myriad of ways.
Who by disease?
For a mother to watch her child suffer and perish slowly as a result of cancer or other terminal illnesses is debilitating. It rips your heart apart. Prior to my trauma work I was one of the directors of Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, Chai Lifeline’s camps for children with cancer and other long-term illnesses. There I stared ma’gaifa in the eye. I saw it sadly triumph and engulf precious children’s bodies and ultimately take their lives. As I continue seeing the scourge of disease test families through my current work, it never gets easier.
Who by strangulation?
Imagine the horror of suffocation. Or the victim who succumbs to their battle with cystic fibrosis and lungs that were too sick to sustain them, or the child smothered by the sand tunnel he innocently was building on the beach.
Who by stoning?
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me. If only. Victims of abuse—physical, sexual or emotional—die literal deaths and figurative deaths daily. Stoning also connotes images of vehicles hitting children innocently walking, biking and skateboarding. A simple hike on a stony trail has led to some literally falling to their death.
Mi yanu’ach umi yanua. Mi yisha’keit umi yi’tareph
Who will rest, who will wander, who will be distraught and who will be serene?
Some mothers awake in the morning to find their child has not and will not ever wake up again. Mita neshika.
Restful, without apparent suffering, but torturous and unexpected. Some are forced to watch their child linger in a death-like coma for weeks, months, even years, and never expected to be revived.
Mi yishalev umi yit’yasar
Who will be tranquil and who will be chastened?
Which deaths will be sudden, shocking, traumatic, jarring and which expected, prolonged, anticipated yet dreaded?
Which families will suffer the private consequences of emotional disease? A child who feels that taking his own life is his only refuah.
Mi ye’ani umi ye’asher; mi yi’shafel umi yarum
Who will be poor and who will be rich, who will fall and who will rise?
Yes, even in our times, in our own communities, there are families who live in such extreme poverty that their very existence is death-like and may even lead to actual death. The degradation that the children feel as a result is enough to kill them.
Throughout saying Unetaneh Tokef, my tear-filled eyes have seen visions of these precious souls who are no longer with us. My ears hear their cries. My heart is filled with a multidimensional sense of humility, an all-encompassing feeling of gratitude and an abundance of strength granted by Him.
In shuls around the world, the chazzans complete their Unetaneh Tokef. I humbly beseech you, my fellow supplicants, to connect to the words of Unetaneh Tokef as it lingers. Open your eyes to see the children we lost and picture the ones we continue to pray for. Attune your ears to listen to their haunting cries. Open your hearts to the emotions, the heavy sadness, coupled with the appreciation and the gifts He sends us. Together, our mouths should be nothing less than a never-ending vessel of intense prayer that the coming year be one void of pain for these families and filled with bracha for all of klal Yisrael.
U’teshuvah, u’tefilla, u’tzedaka ma’avirin et ro’ah hagezeirah…
Zahava Farbman, LMSW, is a veteran traumatologist, having worked in this field for close to two decades.
Formerly she held the position as a director of Camp Simcha, Chai Lifeline’s overnight camp for children with cancer and other medical challenges.
Zahava’s current position, which she has held for much of her career, is the Associate Director of Project Chai, the Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department of Chai Lifeline, where she focuses on helping families and communities prepare for and respond to the full range of crises, traumas and tragedies.
Zahava has authored and presented papers across the nation in her areas of expertise. She is widely recognized as the “go to” professional in responding to crisis in the Jewish community.
In addition, Zahava is the responder for mental health emergencies for Hatzalah of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway in NY. Zahava is currently pursuing a PhD in social work with a focus on trauma. She lives in Woodmere, NY, with her husband and children.
By Zahava Farbman as told to Chaia Frishman