Lest Our Preparation for Prayer be Willy-Nilly

Jul 7, 2016 by

Lest Our Preparation for Prayer be Willy-Nilly

Lists, as we know, play a key role in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy.  Be it Avinu Malkeinu or Al Cheit, our High Holy Day liturgy is laced with lists.  Mishkan HaNefesh’s lists greatly overlap the collections found in Gates of Repentance, but they do differ.   I can think of multiple ways of approaching these differences when preparing to lead services.

The first would be simply to ignore the old order and simply roll through the lists as presented in Mishkan HaNefesh.  However, this approach strikes me as too willy-nilly.  Certainly, we wish to understand these changes in some of our most poignant prayers.

A second approach to preparation might be to place one’s machzorim next to each other on a table and construct one’s own charts, using post-its  and scratch paper for clarification.  This detailed approach enables the prayer leader to map out the differences and consider the expanded options presented by our new machzor.  However, why choose to work in the dark?  Why not have some additional tools before us as we consider the possibilities presented in the evolution of our Reform Jewish liturgy?

Thankfully, Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh provides us with some lists and other resources that can help us approach the High Holy Days in an organized fashion.  We needn’t proceed willy-nilly or with just our own charts.  This book’s obvious lists come at the end in the “Indexes and Tables.” [p.130] It is helpful to have these organized lists of poems and passages, authors and citations. However, when facing the altered lists of Avinu Malkeinu, Al Cheit, etc, I found it first helpful to turn to the “Table of Readings Related to Key Liturgical Rubrics.” (p.168) I dearly hope no rabbi ever uses that title from the bima, however this table can help us contemplate the crucial lists from across our High Holy Day liturgy with a sense of the breadth our editors have presented.  As we consider how to frame our prayers, we are easily presented with the broad range of possibilities.  Al Cheit might be framed on Yom Kippur Morning by Yehuda Amichai or on Yom Kippur Afternoon with a selection from Gates of Repentance itself.  This tool gives a broad snap shot that might help organize the prayer leader’s thoughts.Divrei Image

Even more helpful, is the annotated list described simply as “commentary.” (p.12) Certainly, the insights presented here don’t read as a mere list.  We are provided helpful insights into the choices the editors made in shaping the machzor’s two volumes.  This Commentary is enlightening in comparing different services and considering the range of choices. It is especially helpful when presenting those prayers composed as lists themselves.

Mishkan HaNefesh allows for the melodies many congregations likely use, as we read “every time Avinu Malkeinu appears in the machzor, the words used by Janowski are presented together.” [p.19] With some humor, this grouping is explained.  Further, we learn that the editors “have also added traditional verses to Avinu Malkeinu not found in Gates of Repentance” [p.19] with some further explanation of the editorial selections.  This mini-essay continues with an interesting explanation of the translations offered with Avinu Malkeinu, and thus other prayers.  We are reminded, “Avoiding the word “sin” in the maczhor is not easy, since the Hebrew word cheit is universally recognized as “sin.” [p.21] Later on that page, we learn the reasoning behind rendering “the final declaration of Avinu Malkeinu as ‘our deeds are wanting’ and not ‘we have no merit.”

Actually, Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh’s lists don’t operate in isolation. The insights of that paragraph are more fully explained in Janet Marder’s essay, in a paragraph that reads, in part, “The goal of cheshbon hanefesh (moral inventory), after all, is not self-condemnation but an honest, realistic assessment of both our weakness and our strengths, our right and wrong actions.” [p.72]  Together this string of insights allows us to both understand the editors’ approach and to consider our own choices in constructing our services.

In the end, there is no substitute for a prayer leader working his or her own way through the machzor itself.  We will each react differently to Mishkan HaNefesh’s various lists of Avinu Malkeinu or Al Cheit.  Decisions will be based on community, melody, minhag, or the prior year’s selection. Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh offers helpful lists and insightful essays that can help us understand and shape our approach to our worship using our new machzor.

Rabbi Andrew Busch serves Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.  He serves on Reform Judaism’s Commission on Worship, Synagogue Music and Religious Living and as an officer of the Baltimore Jewish Council. 

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