Books spirituality

Approaching the Days of Awe: Turnings and Returnings

A blessing—in Hebrew, b’rakhah—is a special kind of utterance that can turn a moment into an event. Blessings intensify life by increasing our awareness of the present even while awakening our connections to the past. In the increasingly chaotic social and political climates in which we live, blessings can root us in the teachings of our tradition, and these teachings can help us recognize and remember the sacred in our everyday lives.

As a poet, I have long been drawn to the power—the lyric intensity—of the Hebrew b’rakhah. I began writing blessings of my own, however, because I was extremely uncomfortable with the heavily patriarchal image of God in the traditional prayers. When, almost four decades ago, I found myself standing silently in synagogue every week, unable to pray to the Lord-God-King of the traditional liturgy, I knew it was time for a change. And so it began. I sought to write new blessings that would speak not only to my own vision, needs, and concerns, but to those of individuals seeking greater meaning through our tradition. I wanted to provide a resource for the forging of fully inclusive and embracing communities.

Thirteen years later, in 1996, the first edition of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival was published. I had written the book especially (though not exclusively) for Jews who felt shut out of the tradition, alienated by liturgy that had failed to adapt to changing times. But although I had known there was a need for more inclusive language when I began writing my liturgy, I was surprised by the initial breadth and the enthusiastic tone of the reception to the book’s publication. It wasn’t just progressive Jews who wrote to thank me for the blessings, telling me they were using the book in their homes and chavurot; I received letters from Jews of every denomination. I was humbled to learn that The Book of Blessings had begun to open doors that had been closed to so many for so long.

Today the CCAR Press is issuing a 20th-anniversary edition of the book. My hope is that this new edition will return us to the conversation that began two decades ago with the publication of the first edition, and that it will carry the conversation forward, opening it to a new generation. Like the first edition, the new edition of The Book of Blessings is for Jews of all denominations, as well as unaffiliated Jews, progressive Jews, humanists, and self-identified secular Jews. It is for all who are dissatisfied or frustrated with the prayers of our ancestors as well as for those who want to build upon the traditional prayers.

At this time of year, it is the particular aim of The Book of Blessings to help us turn inward and outward at once—inward to the truths of the self and outward toward the whole of humanity. This to-and-fro movement—turnings and returnings, from self-examination to making amends with others—is at the heart of the High Holidays. I have written a companion book to The Book of Blessings, which focuses specifically on these themes: The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the High Holiday Season. It is my hope that, taken together, these volumes will enrich our experience of the upcoming Days of Awe, guiding us to a fuller and more vibrant awareness of our participation in the Greater Whole of Creation.

Marcia Falk received her PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Stanford and did postdoctoral work in Bible and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of several highly acclaimed books, including The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival; The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season; The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible; The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda; With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman; and three books of her own poetry, This Year in Jerusalem, It Is July in Virginia, and My Son Likes Weather. Marcia is also a painter and life member of the Art Students League of New York.

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