A Summer Journey with Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh
It was another blazing July afternoon in New York City. Wearing khaki shorts, sandals, and a white linen shirt, I stepped into the sun-drenched West Side of Central Park. I diverged from the path momentarily, stopping near a park bench to check the hours for the Metropolitan Museum of Art on my phone, before trekking across the park to see their Egyptology exhibits. A man seated there in a checkered shirt, jeans, and sunglasses called out to me from behind his newspaper, “That’s a great book! Have you finished it yet?” Nearly dropping my phone, I gazed at him quizzically. He smiled at me. I blinked. He couldn’t have possibly meant the copy of Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh that I had in my hand, could he? “You see, I’m a Native American, but I’m also Jewish. On my dad’s side…” I squinted my eyes in confused disbelief, trying to understand how he could know this book. His appearance, ethnicity, and religious background had no bearing for me whatsoever, but somehow he now seemed perturbed that I would doubt him. “How could you have read this book? It hasn’t been released yet,” I asked. With a slight air of indignation he said, “I’m an author. I received an advance copy from Simon & Schuster. Four months ago…” I stared him square in the eyes and slowly shook my head with an audible “Hmph.” He doesn’t know the book or the publisher and he is clearly lying to me. But why? “Hmph.” he retorted, imitating me, continuing his charade. “I am writing a blog article about the book,” I said, “This one advance copy was given to me by the CCAR, the publisher of the book. So…if you really read it, then tell me, what is it about?” The man coolly responded while returning to his newspaper, “It’s about a journey. Life’s a journey.” With that, I said, “Okay, thanks. Have a great day…” and continued down the path to the East Side.
I passed a potpourri of musicians who were busking in the shaded parts of the park. A diversity of divertissements. There was the accordion player, the classical guitarist, the jazz guitarist, the violinist, the singer-songwriter. I needed a diversion to get the strange encounter I just had out of my head, but I couldn’t figure out why he had lied about the book. As I drifted past Sheep Meadow, the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the Loeb Boathouse, and the Conservatory Pond, eventually winding my way up to the Met, my thoughts evaporated in the hot sun. The only thing left of the conversation in my mind were his last words. “Life’s a journey.” I pondered the collective journeys of everyone who visited or worked in the park, who built the park, and who paid to preserve the monuments and buildings. And then I meandered through the Egyptian exhibits at the Met. There were so many things to see, I couldn’t possibly process it all in one day, and I left wishing I had a guide – a Divrei Mitzrayim.
So I took a break after visiting the museum and sat in a cafe to finish reading through Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. I finished the commentaries, the essays, and then took a look at the indexes and tables. It struck me that there was a lot of incredibly useful and even entertaining information in the book. At times I imagined it was an episode from VH1: Behind the Machzor, only with more rabbinical commentary than music. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little to myself as obscure facts about sources and rationales behind decisions became apparent. The phrases like “The God of Max Janowski is a Zealous God,” as well as naming the sources for many of the traditional prayers the “Goldschmidt Variations,” made this cantor and Bach aficionado laugh out loud. I looked up from the book slightly embarrassed, as I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to have been laughing or not. After all, this is a clergy commentary on a High Holy Day machzor. It could have been a very dry book of useful information, but instead it revealed a very human quality.
The book made me feel as though I was in the room with the committee, deliberating over something as seemingly inconsequential as one letter, like whether we should say “HaMelech HaYosheiv” or “HaMelech yosheiv,” which in actuality can be a profound difference once it is explained. Reading the commentary and essays helped me to appreciate the incredible amount of scholarship, time, and collaboration that went into producing the High Holiday machzor, as well as the weight and intensity with which they must have deliberated over its details. I was greatly appreciative of my colleague, Cantor Evan Kent, who must have reminded the committee of the impact that changes in the liturgy have on the music and congregational participation for the High Holidays. The voice of the cantor and the importance of the music on the High Holidays was felt throughout the decision-making process. And reading the resonant words of Rabbi Leon Morris and Rabbi Hara Person brought me back to our time working together at my first High Holiday pulpit as a cantorial student in the Hamptons and at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, evoking fond memories of my personal journey.
Reading Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh also made me look forward to the High Holy Days this year. We at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue are rolling out our new Mishkan HaNefesh machzors for the first time this fall. While I was initially impatient and disappointed not to have gotten the machzor when it was published last year, in retrospect I am glad that we waited so we would have the opportunity to read Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh and be able to put more thought into our decisions, just as this machzor committee did. Like the ancient ruins of Egypt that had old blocks of granite that were reused to create the cornerstones of newer structures, the committee gave deference and respect to the old volume of Gates of Repentance while charting a new course. They recognized that the process was a human endeavor and that in the end there will likely be mistakes that are spotted and later corrected. In their long journey to create the commentaries and essays they recognized the humanity within themselves as well as the diversity of the Reform movement, and teach us lessons not only on why they did what they did, but how we too may collaborate as clergy and lay people to create meaningful new experiences that build upon the best of our past.
I never asked the man in the park why he was lying. He may have hoped to impress me. Perhaps he was lonely. Or trying to divert my attention from my phone. Or eager to connect with someone. I will never know why. But I know that the strange little journey I took that day, as if back in time to our days of captivity in Egypt, made me contemplate the journeys we all take and how the people who we encounter along the way have the capacity to alter our perspective and enrich experiences with as little as one book, one word, or even one letter.
Cantor Daniel A. Singer serves Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. He has served on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors for two years.