I am sitting in the Metropolitan Opera House waiting for my favorite moment. Those majestic crystal chandeliers start rising high into the sky and the spotlight reveals an elegantly attired conductor. The house goes silent, the baton lifts, and the orchestra begins. The sounds of the music go straight into the hearts of the 3,800 people who are enraptured. This is my favorite moment: the overture.
S’lichot is the overture for our High Holy Days and my favorite part of the holiday. With sadness, I wrestle with the fact that roughly 0.001% of my congregation is present for the overture. Would those same congregants walk into the Metropolitan Opera House late? I have to wonder.
How could we draw more people to be present for S’lichot? Yes, I know. It’s the food. Bring them in with food. But even food won’t keep them there and wanting to come back. Neither will a good performance. They can go elsewhere for good food and good performances. We can only hold them with what we do best: focus on meaning, tradition, faith, and a touching of that spot in the heart where no one else can go.
When the chance came to pilot the CCAR’s new prayerbook for Elul and S’lichot, I jumped. My biggest challenge was going to be bowing out of the regional S’lichot service that had been a tradition for years, notwithstanding that it was a tradition that, if the feet do the judging, was not working for us because no one came. The opportunity to pilot the prayerbook for Elul and S’lichot was my chance to make a radical change and offer our own S’lichot service. Our Cantor was game to try it. Our Ritual Committee was game to try it. We decided to try it. One benefit of our regional S’lichot was that our lack of participants wasn’t so noticeable, but if no one came this time it would be patently obvious for all to see. But they did come. And I am convinced that Mishkan HaLev is why they will come again next year.
The overriding reason why Mishkan HaLev works is that it is rooted in joy. The season is so somber and the work so heavy, how refreshing it is to begin our overture for the High Holy Days in joy. We actually celebrate the fact that we can change our lives. The name of the prayerbook – Mishkan HaLev – promises a connection to the other Mishkan prayerbooks in our lives, but also the focus on the heart. Mishkan HaLev focuses us on the joyful heart.
I am privileged to work with an awesome cantor. He and I read through the pilot copy together. We read it out loud with just each other. We agreed that our purpose was not a concert by cantor or choir. There was far too much material to utilize, so we had to edit ourselves down. We were able to do so by noting the individual movements of the service: Havdalah, Entering the Gates of S’lichot, the Promise of Forgiveness, the Path of Return, the B’rit of Compassion and the Call of the Shofar. We chose our selections from each of these sections to provide balance and direction for the service. We chose musical selections that we wanted to teach prior to Rosh HaShanah and those that would be familiar and make the heart beat faster.
God bless the Yehuda Amichai poetry throughout the prayerbook. How does he do it? A profound tying of the ancient and the modern and a message that jumps out and hits you on the head without being moralistic or pendantic. “From the place where we are right…” is but one example. The appearance of that poem alone makes Mishkan HaLev worthwhile.
Praying with a prayerbook that we knew was not yet “cast in stone,” was part of the excitement. Like our human selves who were present because of the possibility of changing ourselves, so too the draft prayerbook. How will the draft version continue to change before going to the printer? I don’t know. I hope there may be more chatimot following English readings to better connect them to the original Hebrew prayers, and I hope that layout decisions may afford the opportunity, as in Mishkan T’filah, for the open spread to all reflect one body of work with the more traditional on the right and the interpretive on the left.
But most significantly: I believe that Mishkan HaLev helps to open our hearts to the tasks at hand. I saw it with my own eyes and our synagogue has already put in its order for the printed version. It will be in our hands to open the gates of 5778.
Rabbi Stacy Offner serves Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT.
CCAR Press offers special pre-publication discounts for Mishkan HaLev. A preview of Mishkan HaLev is now available!