What Are We Doing Here?: Mishkan HaNefesh and the High Holy Days

Sep 8, 2014 by

What Are We Doing Here?: Mishkan HaNefesh and the High Holy Days

You are probably aware, if you’ve sat through High Holy Day services in years past, that these worship services run longer than most other days of the year. If you have not really studied or examined the words on the pages closely before, you may not be aware of all the ‘extras’ that are part of the High Holy Day liturgy. Of course, the Shofar service is one of the most immediately recognizable additions. And the singing of Avinu Malkeinu. And you may have spent many a year struggling with the medieval piyyut (poem) U’netaneh Tokef (that’s the one that contains those uncomfortable lines, ‘who will live and who will die’). 

But perhaps you don’t remember a series of paragraphs that are inserted into the Amidah that extend the section known in Hebrew as k’dushat Hashem – the Sanctification of the Name. That is the section where we repeat 3 times, kadosh kadosh kadosh… holy holy holy is the Eternal God of Hosts.

The reason why this section of prayer is extended with some additional paragraphs is because the ‘sanctification of God’s name’ was, historically, a big theme of the Jewish New Year. In ancient times there would be an official day of the year to celebrate and honor each year of a king’s reign. Think of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. There was a lot of fuss and fanfare as her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated back in 2012.  Something of this ancient ritual was borrowed in Jewish ritual – one day a year we recognize and honor the coronation of the King of Kings.  In our Rosh HaShanah liturgy we do this when we ‘sanctify God’s name.’ But what does that mean exactly?

The three additional passages that become part of the sanctification prayer over the High Holy Days each begin with the word u’v’chen, meaning ‘therefore.’ What follows in the 3 passages are an ancient liturgists idea of what the world would look like if we all IMG_0716acted in ways that demonstrated our attempt to bring a sense of God’s holiness into our world. First, all of creation would feel a sense of awe and reverence for God. Second, the Jewish people would no longer struggle because they would receive honor and respect and, third, we’d all be acting righteously and we would no longer be witness to evil.

Now, putting the history lesson and the ancient language of kings aside for a moment, what we have here, right in the center of one of the central prayers of our liturgy, are words that remind us that we’ve really failed to do much of meaning if we dutifully sit in synagogue and mindlessly recite words, unless the time we spend in reflection and connection remind and inspire us that, when we get up, we make meaning by doing. That’s why I love some of the alternative, contemporary readings that our upcoming new machzorMishkan haNefesh, has placed across from the three traditionalu’v’chen passages emphasize the centrality of our actions if we really want to do honor to God’s name and bring holiness into our world.  My favorite of the passages is one that I intend to make the focus of this section of worship this year  in my congregation – it is an adaptation of a prayer first written by Rabbi Jack Reimer and published in New Prayers for the High Holy Days in 1971. It begins:

We cannot merely pray to You, O God
to banish war,
for You have filled the world with paths to peace
if only we would take them.
We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them…

And, following additional passages in a similar mode, it concludes:

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.

I know how easy it is to feel frustrated in the ritual of sitting and praying over the High Holy Days. I know how easy it is to look around a room and wonder how many of the people we see will leave the sanctuary after a couple of hours of reciting righteous words and exert themselves to live according to those words. I know how it feels because I have had those thoughts and feelings, sitting as a congregant in years past. But I have come to appreciate that with all things in life, I most often act and do with greater care and greater impact when I have first taken sufficient time to contemplate and consider all aspects of the task that lies before me – not only what needs to be done, but who needs to be included, what challenges face us, and how we can achieve something collaboratively.

So it is with the High Holy Days. There are a great many words on the pages that lie before us. But they are there not to numb us into mindless recitation, but to prod and cajole us into action. Action that, when we rededicate ourselves to our purpose each New Year, might be that much more energized, thoughtful, and effective because we took the reflective time that the High Holy Days give to us to do better.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

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