One Is Silver and the Other’s Gold: Precious Gifts of Mishkan HaNefesh
“Make new friends, and keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” We all heard and likely sang that ditty as children. We were not thinking of prayer books, but about friends.
For many people, though, a prayer book is an old friend. I recall an older Temple member, who was ill and unable to attend services here on the High Holy Days. When I visited, she showed me the prayer books that she and her family had used for a private service on Rosh Hashanah eve, and planned to use again on Yom Kippur: Union Prayer Book, of course.
I suspect that those High Holy Days were the most meaningful of that family’s life, as their matriarch neared the end of her life, but still able to celebrate and enjoy her family. Only immediate relatives were present, with one friend: that prayer book, which had been a part of their lives for generations, linking them to all who had come before, and to their memories of Rosh Hashanah in the Temple that has been their family’s synagogue home for a century and a half.
For many, Union Prayer Book was and remains a friend. Though a generation or more has passed since that book was used for regular High Holy Day services here, many return to its special place in our homes, to seek comfort and guidance.
Gates of Repentance was a hip, contemporary friend for its era. That decade, the 1970s, was characterized by low regard for anyone over 30; and Union Prayer Book was far older than that. Radical change was in the air in the years immediately following the moon landing and Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of Women’s Liberation. While young adults of that era embraced the change, throwing off archaic language – you know, all those thee’s and thou’s – offering more accessible English for a new generation, others mourned the loss of an old friend.
The 21st Century is sometimes called post-modern, meaning in part that we embrace advances without throwing away the gems of the past. Mishkan HaNefesh preserves more of Jewish tradition than any previous Reform prayer book, while also embracing more of our Reform heritage than Gates of Repentance.
On the one hand, Mishkan HaNefesh includes more traditional Hebrew than its predecessors. On the other hand, the Hebrew is all transliterated on each page as it appears, making it more accessible, as we have become accustomed with Mishkan T’filah.
Another example of embracing both traditional and Reform practice is in the scriptural readings. Those of us who’ve been Reform for as long as we’ve been alive, or at least for as long as we’ve been Jewish, may imagine that the Binding of Isaac is the traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah morning. That’s only partially true. In traditional synagogues, that section is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Mishkan HaNefesh offers choices. This year, for example, we will read the traditional selection for the first – and in our case, the only – day of Rosh Hashanah, which is about the birth of Isaac. Then, we will immediately turn to a Haftarah designated by our Reform forbears, a selection from the Book of Nehemiah about an ancient Rosh Hashanah.
The evocative English of Mishkan HaNefesh is its greatest strength, whether in translations of traditional prayers or in the more interpretive sections on the left side of the page. We may find inspiration in prayer and poetry that is mostly new to us, and then turn to a reading that has brought meaning to Reform Jews since the first edition of Union Prayer Book.
The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh solved some nettlesome problems with grace. For some years, we have been awkwardly changing the words when Gates of Repentance refers to God as “He.” As with Mishkan T’filah, that problem has been solved in ways that are never noticeable.
The most important words on the High Holy Days are Avinu Malkeinu, previously translated, “Our Father, our King.” The solution in Mishkan HaNefesh is a thing of beauty: “Avinu Malkeinu, Sh’ma Koleinu, Avinu Malkeinu – Almighty and Merciful – hear our voice.” “Almighty and Merciful” is evocative alliteration, reflecting the opening “a” and “m” sounds of Avinu Malkeinu. More significant, the meaning is conveyed, even if not literally. We call upon Malkeinu, our Sovereign, to acknowledge God’s power to judge us when we have sinned. We call upon Avinu, our loving heavenly Parent, asking the Holy One to be merciful when we have gone astray.
Most creative is the placement of the shofar ritual. In Orthodox synagogues, the shofar is sounded during the mussaf service. Mussaf means “additional,” and it refers to a repetition of prayers, duplication eliminated by our Reform founders. Reform prayer books placed the shofar after the Haftarah reading, since traditional mussaf follows the Torah service. The shofar ritual has three parts – the first, emphasizing God’s sovereignty; the second, asking God to forgive us by recalling the merit of our ancestors; and the third, pointing toward amessianic, future. When the entire shofar ritual is compressed into one part of the service, whether in mussaf or after the Haftarah, each part loses its significance. Mishkan HaNefesh liberates us both from a tradition that is no longer meaningful to us and a decision of our 19th century Reform founders. We now separate the three sections, giving each its own special place in the service.
One is silver and the other’s gold. Mishkan HaNefesh enables us to make a new friend while keeping the old. It preserves our birthright, the old friends that are our Jewish tradition and our Reform heritage, with prayers from the ancient and medieval High Holy Day machzor and words from Union Prayer Book. It provides new poetry, a new friend, inviting our spirits to soar. Mishkan HaNefesh is art in our hands. The look and the feel of these gold and silver volumes are classic wonders, worthy to be cherished for generations, even in a future when these are the beloved old books on the shelf from a previous era.
We have received a magnificent gift, from our editors and from our Conference. Let our hearts, full of gratitude, find precious gems in the silver and in the gold.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.