5 Things That I Seek at The High Holy Days, and How Mishkan HaNefesh Helps Me to Find Them
Following several months of service sampling in a program that engaged over 60 of our members, our congregation adopted Mishkan HaNefesh and introduced it to the whole congregation last year. The feedback was universally positive. Here I highlight five things that I seek at the High Holy Days and, with reference to the new accompanying guide, Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, illustrate how our new machzor intentionally goes about addressing those needs.
1) I want to fully engage in the liturgical flow of the High Holy Days in ways that are spiritually meaningful to me.
I want to emerge from the Yamim Noraim feeling like I’ve been helped to engage in a process of introspective teshuvah and, when necessary, to feel spiritually driven to verbalize that teshuvah to others. As Rabbi Eddie Goldberg explains in Divrei Miskhan HaNefesh (p.61), this is what the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh consciously hoped the machzor could support, by ‘designing the best “map” possible.’ That map saw the services as building up ‘… to a climax where painful truths are realized, change is considered and adopted, and the individual leaves with a plan for self-improvement.’ (ibid). Rabbi Janet Marder points to some translation choices, such as ‘The ways we have wronged You… and harm we have caused in Your world’ instead of ‘The sin we have sinned before You’ as just one way that the language of the liturgy could better draw us in and help us ‘to arrive at a more honest assessment of human misbehavior’ (p.70). The use of Mussar-inspired character traits in the Yom Kippur Mincha service is another way of engaging me in authentic spiritual work. As Rabbi Marder explains, ‘The goal of cheshbon hanefesh (moral inventory), after all, is not self-condemnation but an honest, realistic assessment of both our weaknesses and our strengths, our right and wrong actions.”
2) I want a machzor where reading in English still feels like prayer.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself whittling away more and more of the English in Gates of Repentance, replacing it with alternative readings, kavvanot, and meditations. Part of my personal challenge with the text was a sense of a universal ‘we’ in the language used that often conveyed theological or other sentiments that did not resonate with me. Instead of drawing me to a deeper place, it pushed me away.
I know my experience is not unique, because the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh intentionally created a multi-vocal text in which many more people can find themselves and their inner thoughts and conceptions of the holy mirrored back to them. There are readings that use the language of science to invoke awe or moral conviction. There are poems that convey struggle, theological ambivalence, and a search for truth (p.81). In particular, the well-selected poetry that echoes the themes of traditional prayers on facing pages open up the prayer experience. As Rabbi Sheldon Marder explains in Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, ‘Poems do not preach or dictate to us – they are not dogmatic; rather, they are suggestive, evocative, and open-ended. A poem can turn a statement of belief into a question for our consideration’ (p.107). His approach to translation of the traditional liturgy was ‘faithful’ in that it aimed to present the ideas, feelings and values in the expression of prayer more than a word for word correspondence (p.87). This is one of the great successes of the new machzor.
3) My personal theology is not one that upholds the notion of a personal, judging God, in any literal way, and I want a prayer book that enables me to find a spiritually honest way to make prayer real while remaining true to my sense of God.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher explains the way that the machzor presents an ‘integrated theology’ that ‘allows for dissonant and harmonious ideas to work together, to open up broader possibilities of what it might even mean to express a belief in a greater Power in the universe’ (p.113). This approach enables many people to find a way to pray authentically with the new machzor. This integrated approach does more than just reflect back the God of my imagination to me. By juxtaposing so many different theological expressions with the choice of readings, poems, prayers, and commentaries, I am able to see the partial truths in these other expressions of theology as they open up new possibilities for me.
4) I am seeking greater variety in the ways that the Torah service can more deeply enhance my High Holy Day experience.
Like many of my congregants, I find the Akeidah a troubling text, but I’ve always been particularly drawn to Genesis 21 (the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael) for the High Holy Days. Now, along with several other traditional and alternative selections, I can reintroduce it to my congregation without handouts. Exploring the emotional landscape of the characters (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael) especially lends itself to important behavioral insights that we can really use in our lives. Watching fear, jealousy, anxiety and more play out in the narrative, and searching for hope at a life moment that seems bleak… these are themes that our people can relate to much more deeply. Last year, in our family service, we even created a modern midrashic play, with the help of some of my sixth graders, watching the story play out with the commentary of the emotional characters of ‘Inside Out.’ But there are so many ways to read this powerful text. Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh (p.35-37) offers yet another narrative that looks at the themes of loneliness, and compassion for those who live on the margins.
5) I want to more deeply understand and be engaged by the richness of our tradition.
My congregation, geographically placed as a hub in Central Massachusetts that draws members from nearly 30 towns, consists of those who come from Orthodox and Conservative backgrounds, as well as Reform and non-Jewish backgrounds. We offer multiple services, allowing us to vary styles considerably. One morning service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is intentionally grounded in more traditional liturgy, and more Hebrew. The new machzor enables us to conduct this service with even more integrity than we could with Gates of Repentance. Rabbi Leon Morris describes this as a ‘hermeneutic of embrace’ that ‘… urges us to see the classic siddur and machzor as the poetry of the Jewish people.’ It is ‘… rooted in the idea that the classic text has a great deal to teach us – and that our primary task is to realize how it might be reframed, explained, or translated in such a way as to allow it to live again in our Reform synagogues’ (p. 95). By re-instating parts of the liturgy that had been removed, but doing so in ways that juxtapose those texts with new insights and alternative multi-vocal texts, we can find ways to reconnect with these traditional liturgies.
The new machzor has addressed so much of what I was seeking and yearning for as a guide to navigate my way through the High Holy Days. Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh is filled with essays and commentaries that help to articulate why it has achieved its goals so successfully.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.