His hands shake as they grip the edge of the bima.
It was not always like this. Once
His fingers tapped spry and nimble,
His knuckles did not gnarl and swell,
Spots dotted his face in freckles and not his skin as it aged.
His right knee twinges. He swallows dry.
Perhaps he should visit a doctor. It is not wise, they tell him,
For a man his age to continue his work under such pressure -- he simply laughs it off.
Pah. Meshugge, you are.
He maintains, he will manage, his kind were built to endure.
His kind have walked miles in red sand that burned the soles of their feet.
His kind have strained their eyes to see the hazy shape of hope
In lamplight that burned eight days too long;
His kind stood tall in front of kings and pharaohs and Führers
That ordered them to kneel, bow, lay dead, rot beneath ten feat of Earth.
His kind broke their backs to remain steady on their own two feet --
Who is he to fail them by resting now?
He can certainly stand on a bima, facing a congregation that has come to expect
The sound of his voice, passion in his words,
The life in his eyes glowing behind a cloud of cataracts
(I do not need to see, he claims, to recite the words of Hashem; I read with my heart.)
Like candles through a foggy window,
Tinted glass distorted,
Faint chanting ringing from within.
He had to break fast this morning -- God forgive me, I did not want to --
I’d rather have died. But pills must be taken.
He scans his audience and knows others must have taken pills of their own:
They are old. No one lives forever.
His joints ache as theirs do,
They too feel the weight of seventy, eighty years settled in their bones
Like rocks, like sediment,
Shifting with the current of the river that teems above them.
Such is the will of God.
They will be carried upstream when their time comes.
A glass of water rests on the floor at his feet,
Already half drained --
Droplets still sit moist on his lips.
He is a humble man, as all of Hashem’s servants should be --
He is blessed with dexterity unusual for his age.
He has no cause to complain, and yet even on the day of atonement,
Deep within his chest burns pride.
He is scared.
Give me the strength.
I know why I hesitate.
He fears his voice will catch in his throat --
Will waver, will break to cough,
That the silver in his tone has tarnished,
That his pitch will strain, fall flat,
That his voice is not fit to sing God’s words,
That this chant will be his last.
That he will have to stop.
Kol Nidrei. All Vows.
He is nothing but a man. He is a mouthpiece for the words that pour out of him,
That float through the synagogue as they’ve floated for years upon years.
If he silences himself, he has no purpose.
If he silences himself, he is already unfit to sing God’s words.
He must begin without fear:
His kind know how to endure without fear. It is in their blood.
His mournful voice sings for them.
He takes a breath. The congregation holds theirs.
Ve’esarei, ush’vuei, vacharamei, vekonamei, vekinusei, vechinuyei.
Prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, vows that we may vow --
His voice is his vow.
He vows his life, the rest of his year, however many those may be, he pledges all of them,
That he may stand before his people in front of him,
And sing to his people that lived behind him.
His voice soars and echoes off of the ceiling of the synagogue.