High Holy Days Leader Experience: Being the Suffering Servant, Isaiah 53

Jul 14, 2016 by

High Holy Days Leader Experience: Being the Suffering Servant, Isaiah 53

No one thinks about the High Holy Days more than rabbis and cantors. That’s not to say that Jews as a community don’t look forward to the holidays. People enjoy being with family, eating special foods and seeing people at Syangogue. Many people also find the High Holy Days to be a spiritually fulfilling and uplifting experience. But for the most part it is the rabbis, cantors and other High Holy Day service leaders who spend months planning and preparing for the 10 Days of Awe. Everyone else just shows up.

Several years ago, I ran into Dr. Larry Hoffman just as my pre Rosh Hashanah stress load had reached its peak. He casually asked how I was doing. I recall griping about how overwhelming and even painful High Holy Day preparations always seemed to be, that there was incredible pressure to provide the congregation with a spiritually fulfilling Holy Day season and that I had little if any time for my own spiritual preparations or practice. “You know the suffering servant in Isaiah 53,” he asked? “That’s us.”

The Jewish people may be God’s servants in the Biblical text, but when it comes to the High Holy Days we serve God AND the Jewish people. Finding a way to create worship experiences that are comfortable yet creative, inspiring but also challenging can be a tricky proposition. Last year my congregation worshiped using the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings in our alternative service and Yom Kippur afternoon through Neilah in the main sanctuary.  And though I had wored with several different pilot versions in the past, as a clergy team we spent hours picking music and readings, working to find a balance between the old and new, guessing at timing and hoping that the congregation would take it all in stride, which for the most part they did.

That being said, I wish I hadn’t had to wait until this summer to read Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. Don’t be fooled, I am sure I will suffer plenty in the next few months as I revise service outlines, write iyunnim and sermons and work out all the details of volunteer participation (with my cantor taking on much of that load as well). Yet this book provides the spiritual uplift I had been missing to put it all in perspective. Not only does Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh give us the insiders view on what went into developing and crafting the two beautiful volumes of Mishkan HaNefesh, but it allows the reader to think about the greater purpose and meaning of the High Holy Days and prayer in general. In reading this volume I was also inspired to appreciate what our machzor can do. As Rabbi Edwin Goldberg so aptly reflects, “…we post moderns need a corrective,  a ‘reset’ that centers us in a context of what matters most. Life, many of us deem, is a problem. Jewish text and tradition- presented as a meaningful, relevant High Holy Day experience- can be a captivating and vital solution.” (p.1)

The explanations of how different editorial decisions have been made and the textual references at the back of the book are excellent tools. However, for me, it is the eight essays in Part Two of the book that I cherished not only for the superior writing but for the chance to engage in higher level thinking they provided me. Each essay leaves the reader with big ideas to ponder and lifts up the preparations for the holy days from a task of servitude to one of holy service.

In his essay, Translating Faith, Rabbi Shelly Marder reminds us of how the words we pray, whether they are in Hebrew or English are a human attempt to articulate the inarticulateable: what we really believe. “…[F]aith, after all, is a language that challenges us to describe  the ineffable and comprehend the unknowable. (p.85)

If all written or spoken prayers are each an attempt to “translate the non-verbal into speech,” (p.86) then the English versions of our ancient Hebrew prayers are no more than “a living bridge…[that] gives us access to the world that generated the original text- as well as a glimpse of the experience of those who first used it.” (p.87) Understanding how translation is an art in and of itself can inspire us to remember that the prayers we now say or sing so specifically and devotedly were once nothing more than a prayerful person’s best attempt at articulating their own feelings of faith. The new writings and poetry that have been added to the machzor are similar artistic reflections of faith, no less holy for their less than ancient origins. As undertake my own writing for the season I will keep this in mind.

Rabbi Leon Morris brilliantly unpacks the tension between traditional and Reform liturgy in his essay Restoring and Reclaiming tradition: Creative Retrievals and Mishkan HaNefesh. By counseling us to engage in a ‘hermeneutic of embrace’, Morris challenges us to see our fellow Reform Jews as intelligent, thoughtful and spiritually searching people. Rather than ‘decide for our community’, as rabbis and liturgists of ages past have done, this new machzor presents the opportunity for everyone to engage in Avodah on their own terms. As he writes, “the understanding of Avodah as work might be apt…when we consider the interpretive labor required of us when trying our best to bridge the gap between the inherited words of the classic siddur and our contemporary lives. It is often hard work to make meaning from these words. Simultaneously such work is a privilege, a blessing and an opportunity for connection and continuity.” (p.99)

Cantor Evan Kent reminds cantors and rabbis alike of the powerful effect music can have on the energy of a worship service, “creating living liturgical memories [that] involve the body and mind.” (p.118) His essay: Collective Effervescence: High Holy Day Music and Liturgical Memory, challenges us to think beyond the grand liturgical pieces we have all come to expect. By incorporating highly repetitive and communal singing, he suggests, we can create threads that  weave a room of strangers into a congregation while taking advantage of the liturgical themes of the season that also weave in and out of the High Holy day liturgies. As he writes: “Highly repetitive music actually adds to the intensity of the ritual as it enables maximum participation” (p.121).

This new volume is truly a treasure. Keep it as a resource, but return to it again and again for inspiration and guidance. It reminded me of how holy a task it is to prepare for and lead our communities through the Days of Awe. It can remind us all that the machzor is a tool that enables us to ask: “How do we help ourselves return to our sacred path, in a world that continually seduces us away from the work that we must do.” (p.63)

Rabbi Mara Nathan serves Temple Beth-El in San Antonio Texas. She is also currently serving on the Board of the CCAR as Dues Chair.

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2 Comments

  1. mordecaischreiber

    Yishar kochachech

  2. Jordan

    I certainly appreciate the hard work of clergy, especially as an HHD musical accompanist. If there is ever a time when vernacular liturgy is important, when complex, emotionally and intellectually nurturing and impressive liturgical music is needed, and when fragmented, anthological liturgies are more confusing and a linear approach is helpful, it’s the Yamim Noraim. I’ve looked out from the piano and organ console to see people frantically paging through Mishkan Hanefesh (and Mishkan Tefillah for that matter) and struggling to figure out what’s going on. The only way to fully avoid that is to make constant, specific announcements like “bottom of page 230”. If it weren’t such a waste of paper, I’d say the Protestants were right to print out exactly that day’s liturgy so there’s no need for awkward announcements that break kavanah. *sigh* I just think we post-moderns have lost a sense of liturgical art and flow. We don’t have to have the hyper-formality of the Union Prayer Book (though maybe on Yom Kippur it’s more appropriate), but while people should feel engaged and not have all decisions made for them by a room full of scholar-rabbis every few decades, I think the pendulum might have swung too far in the other direction. There is something so wonderful, as a worshipper, to have something that flows and makes the only “work” or concentration required the work of reflection and of Teshuvah. And I say this as a major liturgy geek with a collection of every progressive siddur and machzor since the Hamburg Temple prayer book.

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