A New Year, A New Experience: Leading my First High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh

Oct 10, 2014 by

A New Year, A New Experience: Leading my First High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh

In an interview for Sh’ma Journal in 2012, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi stated that he saw the Hasidic idea of “Rebbe,” as opposed to the ordained leadership role of a rabbi, as a fluid one. Rabbi Schachter Shalomi remarked, “I believe that in our day, living as we do in a democratic context, we need different people — men and women — in a community to function as rebbes at different times, helping people grow in their relationships with God… Mostly, I try to listen to what people say, how they say it, and when they say it, and then I ask what lies behind these presentations. What does this person’s neshamah (soul) need in order to live more harmoniously with God and creation?”

This High Holy Days, I was stepping into this position for the first time. This was only temporary, as Rabbi Schachter Shalomi would have it, but with definite purpose. As I approached Erev Rosh HaShanah, I was terrified. Had I picked the right prayers? Would my voice cause people to rush out of the room covering their ears? Would I come off as pompous, self-righteous, distant? Would I alienate this room full of college students at a Hillel just now finding its footing? This tornado of anxiety whirled around in my head, leaving me physically quaking as I began the service. Although I looked out at a sea of unfamiliar faces sitting with solemn expressions, unsure if they were solemn because of my terrible leading of prayer, or because of Rosh HaShanah, I tried to focus on my role: delivering the meaning of the holiday in translatable terms.

Sooner than I thought, the service closed without a hitch. My wife beamed with pride. Many strangers approached me thanking me and telling me I did a great job. Of course, this was expected – I couldn’t imagine these individuals saying anything disparaging no matter how much I had butchered their expectations. Then a woman, a stranger herself to the community just passing through on a road trip, came up to me and said, “You didn’t even look nervous at all! I would have been a mess up there.”

Now, that comment I hadn’t expected. Then I thought back and remembered Rabbi Schachter Shalomi’s idea of inhabiting the space of the Rebbe. Somewhere at the start of the Amida, I had entered a state of flow. The role of Rebbe had been placed on me by the many eyes switching their gaze from the machzor, to me, and back to the machzor, and I had stepped up to the challenge, similarly gazing down to the machzor, then back to the congregation, then back down to the machzor. In this exchange we entered into a moment of relation via the words of Mishkan HaNefesh.

The new machzor was my bridge into gaining a level of security in this new, alien situation. Had I been reading from Gates of Repentance, I almost certainly would have had greater difficulty finding my way into the role. The baggage that I carry connected to Gates of Repentance would have weighed me down significantly. Instead, I had been given the gift of ownership. Mishkan HaNefesh contains a great deal of alternative readings, from essays to poetry, written by people of all stripes. My services contained readings from individuals as disparate as Samson Rafael Hirsch and Richard Feynman. As the shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, I was given the opportunity to pick from the many different elements of the machzor to attend to what I thought the community’s neshama would need. Not only this, but I was also able to use the digital files of the machzor to help myself.  By importing them to my iPad, I was able to alter the machzor itself to fit my needs. Instead of having a binder full of papers, I was able to smoothly transition from page to page, removing pages I was not going to use, highlighting readings I intended on doing or had handed out to participants to do, and typing in iyyunim and congregational directions so that I could read them clearly.

Combining the multivocality of the machzor with the technology of my iPad, I was able to design a service that would speak to the congregation, as well as guide me through the motions of leading without my having to remove myself from the moment. I simply needed to continue scrolling through the digital files, knowing that I had prepared them with great thought beforehand.

In this way, Mishkan HaNefesh gave me the tools to successfully occupy the role of Rebbe for this community’s High Holy Days. I was able to take the time well before the services to reflect on what a congregation such as Gettysburg Hillel would need, choose from the machzor the pieces that fit best, and then allow myself to inhabit this new role with the machzor as my guide and bridge to the community. Not only did I come away from this year’s High Holy Days having accomplished a new feat on my way to becoming a rabbi, I was also able to be a part of some of the most meaningful services I had attended in my life. The community at Gettysburg Hillel had a great willingness to participate, welcomed those from outside of the college, and gave me the gift of accomplishment by entrusting me with their High Holy Day services. The warm community of Gettysburg and the utility of Mishkan HaNefesh ushered me into 5775 with a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment by providing the environment for my first step into the role of the Rebbe. May this year be one of great experience and accomplishment for all!

Andy Kahn is a second year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He is currently the intern at the CCAR. 

For more information on Mishkan HaNefesh, click here or write to machzor@ccarnet.org.

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