“I want to write a new melody for Unetaneh Tokef,” the soloist began. “It’s such a dirge!”
“Well, actually,” I said. “This prayer is about God sitting on the Throne of Glory, deciding who shall live and who shall die.”
“Oh,” the soloist said. “I guess that’s okay then.”
In that moment I realized, not only the importance of educating our lay-leaders, but also our own reluctance to say or do anything in the synagogue that might drive people further away from Jewish life. This is particularly challenging during the High Holy Days, when we are supposed to be engaged in rigorous self-examination.
Given that the High Holy Days are also that small window in the Jewish calendar when we have our community’s undivided attention, both clergy and laypeople are uncomfortable with the discomfort that the liturgy of the High Holy Days is supposed to arouse. However, I firmly believe that the season of cheshbon hanefesh and the call to teshuva are also part of Judaism’s balanced spiritual diet.
Strangely enough, one of my primary concerns during my involvement in the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh has been limiting the discomfort of a new machzor. Given the steep learning curve my congregants encountered with Mishkan T’filah in weekly Shabbat worship, I am concerned with how they will adjust to a new format when they only use it twice each year. As a member of the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee, I sought out texts that were thought-provoking but also “readable.” Our congregation’s pilot group was vigilant about pointing out sections that were difficult to follow.
However, if our mission is really to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we need to retain some of the spiritual discomfort that is endemic to the Days of Awe, so that we might strike a balance between recognizing our flaws and realizing our potential.
The tension between these two elements is beautifully played out in the Vidui in the new Kol Nidre service. As we recited the short confession, my pilot group noticed the shift from the more abstract, “Some of us kept grudges, were lustful, malicious or narrow-minded,” (Gates of Repentance p. 269), to the harsher, more specific “We corrupt. We commit crimes. .. We are immoral. We kill” (Mishkan HaNefesh Kol Nidre draft p. 45a). Some worshippers were actually offended by the direct accusation of crimes they did not commit.
“Why does it say, ‘We kill,’” one man said. “I don’t kill!”
Just as jarring was the iyyun (reading) encouraging us to praise ourselves al ha-tikkun she-tikanu l’fanecha (for the acts of healing we have done). Set up like the al cheyt, this reading states lists a number of acts of tikkun olam we may have committed in addition to our sins, “For the healing acts by which we bring You into the world, the acts of repair that make You a living presence in our lives” (p. 49b).
It is a brilliant and beautiful reading, but for us it was just as spiritually troubling as the Al Cheyt. Just as we didn’t like being accused of wrongdoings we had not done, we didn’t want pat ourselves on the back for righteous acts we had failed to do. We felt that the reading should be written in a tense that made it sound aspirational rather than congratulatory. In a way, however, this text also allowed us to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, serving as a reminder of all we may have failed to do on that list!
Engaging with this Machzor in its formative state was an incredible opportunity to think about the messages we need to hear—or are uncomfortable hearing—during the High Holy Day season in order to inspire us to perform teshuva. Both the confessional texts and the congratulatory texts allowed us to ask ourselves the same essential questions: “Am I really this bad?” “Am I really this good?”
It also made me think about the messages my congregants hear from the pulpit. I’m told that rabbis give the same High Holy Day sermon, over and over again. I’ve realized that mine is not “you are good” or “you are bad,” but “you can change.”
Leah Rachel Berkowitz is the Associate Rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.
She served on the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee of the Machzor Committee. She blogs at thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com.