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CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

Pervasive Peace: A Musical Prayer for Erev Rosh HaShanah

Here we go again. It’s just a few weeks from the High Holy Days, and hopes of worshiping in a post-COVID world of congregational togetherness are quickly being dashed. Communities that planned to hold communal, indoor, and possibly maskless prayer services are reassessing. Whatever happens on the individual congregational level, it will be another year outside the bounds of what we once thought as normal for holy day worship.

We have been dreaming of our spiritual reunion with each other for the upcoming holy days; that blessing appears to be postponed. Perhaps, all the more, we should pray for blessings beyond our wildest dreams. We know these are unprecedented times. Most of us could not have imagined the losses and suffering that the pandemic would bring. For those of us who have lost friends or family to COVID—for those who lost income, livelihood, personal connections, mental health, stability—it can only be described as a nightmare.

This Rosh HaShanah, let us renew our hopes in large and beautiful dreams of peace, the kind of peace that means wholeness, health, renewal, vitality, and resilience.

To share that prayer together on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782, Rebecca Schwartz, cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, created a new musical setting for my short prayer “Pervasive Peace.” The prayer reads as follows:

Pervasive Peace

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵֽינוּ
שֶׁהַשָּׁנָה הַבָּאָה תָּבִיא שָׁלוֹם מֻחְלָט וְשָׁלֵם
,עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל
.מֵעֵֽבֶר לְכָל חֲלֹמוֹת הָאֱנוֹשׁוּת

Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha, Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu,

Shehashanah habaah tavi shalom muchlat v’shaleim

Al kol yosh’vei teiveil,

Mei-eiver l’chol chalomot haenoshut.

May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers,

That the year ahead bring a pervasive and complete peace

On all the inhabitants of the earth,

Beyond all the dreams of humanity.

The prayer uses a classic formulation—Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha…, May it be Your will…—imploring God for specific blessings. This formula is typically used in the Rosh HaShanah seder alongside dipping apples in honey, connecting the sweet ritual to the chain of traditional prayers for the New Year.

“Pervasive Peace” was written before COVID, but it took on a deeper meaning of peace as healing medicine last year as the Jewish community experienced our first pandemic High Holy Days in lockdown. It has, yet again, taken on a longing for renewal as we move toward our second High Holy Days under returning public health restrictions.

Rebecca’s music captures both the hope and the longing that the words are intended to convey. We envision cantors using the prayer to open and set the tone for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hear Rebecca sing the music in this video. An MP3 file is available for download. The sheet music can be purchased on oySongs.

Singing “Pervasive Peace” might also be paired with reading an associated prayer written last year called “Wildly Unimaginable Blessings”:

Wildly Unimaginable Blessings

Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
Blessings so unexpected,
Blessings so beyond our hopes for this world,
Blessings so unbelievable in this era,
That their very existence
Uplifts our vision of creation,
Our relationships to each other,
And our yearning for life itself.
Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
A complete healing of mind, body, and spirit,
A complete healing for all,
The end of suffering and strife,
The end of plague and disease,
When kindness flows from the river of love,
When goodness flows from the river of grace,
Awakened in the spirit of all beings,
When God’s light,
Radiating holiness
Is seen by everyone.
Let us pray—
With all our hearts—
For wildly unimaginable blessings…
So that God will hear the call
To open the gates of the Garden,
Seeing that we haven’t waited,
That we’ve already begun to repair the world,
In testimony to our faith in life,
Our faith in each other,
And our faith in the Holy One,
Blessed be God’s Name.


“Pervasive Peace” lyrics © 2019 by Alden Solovy, music © 2021 by Schwalkin Music (ASCAP).

“Wildly Unimaginable Blessings” © 2020 by Alden Solovy.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

Rebecca Schwartz is Cantorial Soloist and Music Director at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. She is a professional singer, guitarist, and award-winning songwriter. Hear more of her music at rebeccasongs.com.

Categories
Holiday Poetry Prayer

Three Weeks of Sorrow, Seven Weeks of Consolation

Sorrow and joy meet on Rosh Chodesh Av. Rosh Chodesh—the first of each new Hebrew month—is a minor festival of rejoicing. We take note of the cycle of the moon, the grandeur of creation, and the gifts of God by signing Hallel Mizri, the Egyptian Hallel. At its core are Psalms 113 through 118.

There’s a jarring contrast between the joyous and often raucous singing of these psalms with the general mood of the period. Tishah B’Av, our national religious day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It’s a day of tragedy so profound in the eyes of the rabbis of the Mishnah that they went to great lengths to attach other disasters to this date.

In Masechet Taanit 4:6, we read: “On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die [in the wilderness] and not enter the land; and the Temple was destroyed the first time [by the Babylonians], and the second time [by the Romans]; and Beitar was captured; and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.”

The tradition of linking catastrophe to Tishah B’Av continued in later periods. Some say that the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av in 1290 CE, that the deadline in 1492 on which Jews in Spain needed to leave or convert was Tishah B’Av, and that the First World War began on Tishah B’Av.[1] Perhaps most startling: The Hebrew date that Treblinka began operations as a death camp was Tishah B’Av.[2]

The Talmud decrees: “Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing.”

Even before Av begins, some Jews observe a three-week period of mourning, called “The Three Weeks,” from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av. The Mishnah relates that on 17 Tammuz five catastrophes also befell the Jewish people, and the day is observed by some as a minor fast.

Right in the middle of the three weeks, Rosh Chodesh is observed, as always, with song and praises. “Hallel in a Minor Key”—an alternative Hallel that I created with music by Sue Radner Horowitz—was written for moments like these, when joy and sorrow meet.

This liturgy began with a question last winter: How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? In the writing, the question expanded: How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss? How do we praise God when our spiritual calendar places joy and sorrow side-by-side? How do we find a voice of rejoicing when our hearts are in mourning?

My personal experience with this contrast still informs my writing. My wife Ami, z”l, died of traumatic brain injury just before Passover. The religious expectation of our calendar was brutal. After two days of shivah, we were expected to shift into the spiritual joy of Pesach, celebrating our liberation from bondage, singing Hallel as part of the Passover Seder and then again at services. Although it was twelve years ago, that experience of contrast was a core motivator for creating this liturgy (read more about the creation of “Hallel in a Minor Key” on RavBlog).

After Tishah B’Av, the rabbis have given us seven weeks of healing, seven weeks in which special haftarot of consolation are chanted. Here are several prayers for the season:

  • 17 Tammuz: “The Temple
  • Rosh Chodesh Av: “Hallel in a Minor Key” (A PDF published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, including the sheet music, can be downloaded here.)
  • Tishah B’Av: “In Sorrow” from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day (CCAR Press, 2017)
  • Seven weeks of consolation: “Tears, Too Close: A Prayer of Consolation” from This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer (CCAR Press, 2021)

It is said that God permitted the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred of one Jew against another. Throughout this season, let us pray for the well-being of all of the people of Israel, and everyone, everywhere. “Let Tranquility Reign,” from This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, includes a line from Psalm 122: “For the sake of my comrades and companions I shall say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Adonai our God I will seek your good.”


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


[1] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/946703/jewish/What-Happened-on-the-Ninth-of-Av.htm

[2] https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/7-tragedies-that-befell-the-jewish-people-on-tisha-beav-598199

Categories
Holiday Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

Hallel in a Minor Key

We face another year of pandemic Passover. Most congregations are still shuttered, and Pesach worship will be remote and online. Seders will be small or socially distanced, a far cry from our usual crowded, joyous gatherings. Nevertheless, we will still sing Hallel, our liturgy of praises, as part of the Haggadah.

Hallel (praise), Psalms 113 to 118, is sung or recited in the synagogue on all festivals (including intermediate days), as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), on all eight days of Chanukah, and, in recent years, on Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day). Hallel is also recited on the eve of Pesach during the seder.1 

On these sacred days of communal rejoicing, we are asked to set aside our sorrows to praise God. But how do we sing God’s praises during a time of catastrophe or pandemic? How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss?

Depending on personal practice—what one chooses to include in the seder, how often one goes to services, whether an individual participates in two seder nights, and how many days are observed—Hallel can be recited as many as ten times during the festival period.

This raised a hard question for me as a liturgist. How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? Could I find a liturgical response? Personally, I know how difficult this can be. My wife passed away the Shabbat before Passover twelve years ago, and the shivah ended abruptly after only two days.

I began by rereading all my prayers written about COVID and came across a line in a piece called “These Vows: A COVID Kol Nidre.” A line from it reads: “How I wish to sing in the key of Lamentations.” From there, the idea for “Hallel in a Minor Key” was born.

As I started writing, it became important to me to create a liturgy that was robust enough to stand as a full alternative Hallel, reflecting praise in the midst of heartbreak and sorrow. To me, this meant two things. First, I wanted to make sure that each psalm in the classic Hallel was represented by at least one Hebrew line in this liturgy. Second, I wanted to include the sections for waving the lulav in this liturgy, to ensure that it could be used on Sukkot by those with that practice.

Still, something was missing—music specific to this liturgy. Song is a vital part of the public recitation of Hallel, and it serves to create a personal connection with prayer. So, I adapted the opening poem into lyrics—carrying the same name as the entire liturgy—and began searching for someone to compose the music. I listened to a lot of Jewish music online, starting with my small circle of musician friends. When I heard Sue Radner Horowitz’s Pitchu Li, my search for a musician was over.

“Hallel in a Minor Key” begins in minor, but mid-chorus, with words of hope, it switches to a major key. In discussing the music, we both felt it was important to follow the tradition of ending even the most difficult texts with notes of hopefulness. Indeed, the shift reflects our prayer that sorrows can be the doorway to greater love, peace, and—eventually—to growth, healing, and joy.

We also talked about drawing on Eichah trope—used to chant Lamentations on Tishah B’Av, as well as the haftarah on that day—as a musical influence. This idea follows the tradition of bringing Eichah trope into other texts as a sort of musical punctuation. Many will recall its use in M’gillat Esther on Purim. Eichah trope is also traditionally used during the chanting of Deuteronomy 1:12, as well as in selected lines from the associated haftarah for Parashat D’varim, Isaiah 1:1–27. Sue wove hints of “the trope of Lamentations” into the chorus melody of “Hallel in a Minor Key.”

A PDF of the liturgy, including sheet music, can be downloaded here. You can hear a recording of the music here. Sue’s rendition of Pitchu Li, written prior to this liturgy, is also included as part of “Hallel in a Minor Key.” That music can be found on her album Eleven Doors Open.

This is our gift to the Jewish world for all the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. We offer it with a blessing. We encourage you to add music or additional readings that would add meaning to your worship. If you use the liturgy in your worship, we’d love to hear from you. You may reach Alden at asolovy545@gmail.com and Sue at srrhorowitz@gmail.com.

Portions of “Hallel in a Minor Key” were first presented during a Ritualwell online event, “Refuah Shleimah: A Healing Ritual Marking a Year of Pandemic.” Portions were also shared in a workshop session at the 2021 CCAR Convention, held online.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


1 Rabbi Richard Sarason PhD, Divrei Mishkan T’Filah: Delving into the Siddur (CCAR Press, 2018), 190.

Categories
News Poetry

Against Domestic Insurrection

As Reform rabbis, we unequivocally oppose the tragic insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol and on American democracy. We pray for peace in our nation’s capital, for the safety of all, and for an end to the treacherous and divisive demagoguery that threatens our precious democracy and is a rejection of our foundational American values.

Here, Alden Solovy shares a poem reflecting upon this terrible event.

Oh, my people,
What have we become as a nation?
And what will we become,
In the wake of violence and insurrection,
In the face of armed assault against our democracy?
Rioting. Criminality. Attempted coup.
Domestic terror fomented
By the lies, fear, and anger of a president.
Death and destruction in the Capitol.
This doesn’t happen in the United States.
But it did.
And it can again.

Woe to the land that teeters on the brink of fascism.
Woe to the people who stay silent.
Woe to the politicians who cannot stand against this outrage.
Woe to us all as the tide of history turns against our Republic.

Shame on those who have hardened their hearts,
Shut their eyes,
Closed their minds,
And empowered those who
Attempt to banish justice
And free elections from our midst,
Those who bring swords and guns
Against our sovereign land.

Source and Shelter,
Grant safety and security
To the people and democracy of the United States of America.
Protect us from violence, rebellion, intimidation,
And attempts to seize our government.
Save us from domestic terror.
Save us from leaders who cannot say no to attacks
On our legacy and our future.

God of nations and history,
Let truth and justice resound
To the four corners of the earth.
Let the light of freedom
Shine brightly in the halls of power,
As a beacon of hope
For every land and every people.

© 2021 Alden Solovy


Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher wbose writing offers a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsand, most recently, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayerall published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press

Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer

This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer completes Alden Solovy’s trilogy of books with CCAR Press. In the introduction, the author discusses the meaning of his work in a time of pandemic.

Jerusalem, Nisan, 5780/April 2020: I’m sitting at my desk, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. In fifty years, when the coronavirus is a distant memory, please God—or perhaps by then all disease will have been wiped off the globe—some readers won’t know what I’m talking about. You do. Many of you, perhaps most, are doing the same thing in this precarious and surreal moment: protecting the preciousness of all human life—yours, your family’s, your neighbor’s—by drawing back from the world outside into the world within the walls of your own home.

The walls of my writing studio are covered with Jerusalem stone. My desk is a rickety home-office model, a put-it-together-yourself wood-simulation item purchased before IKEA was a thing. One wall of the study is lined with Jewish books, mostly siddurim, Torah commentaries, and other books of Jewish wisdom. Half of the bottom shelf is Hebrew-language books, a testament to my continued and only partially successful efforts to learn the holy tongue. The window faces east, my view through a tree-lined alley to a busy street that follows the 1949 armistice agreement line. The Old City is to the north. To pray, I swivel my chair ninety degrees to the left. The art on the wall behind me is Jewish, including a framed, hand-crocheted “Shalom” made by my Grandma Ida z”l, and a blessing for the home purchased with my wife, Ami z”l, too long ago to remember. My window ledge is full of family photos. As of this moment, everyone is healthy. Let it stay that way.

Some of you may have been sick or seriously ill with coronavirus. Some of you might be ill even now as I write or will, God forbid, become ill soon. Others may be grieving the death of a friend, a family member, or dear one. Some of you are walking into harm’s way to serve us: doctors, nurses, health-care professionals, police, fire, public safety, sanitation, food-chain workers, and more, all of the people in vital services. Each one of us is being asked—perhaps required—to consider what gives our lives meaning. What we value. Our connections. Our contributions. Our legacy. The past. The future. This very moment. This precious life. The place in which we encounter the Divine.

This is a book of prayers, poetry, and meditations inspired by divine encounters. The first half of the book draws from divine moments in our sacred texts, mostly Torah, but also the Prophets and the Writings. Written using a modern voice and a contemporary imagination, the text invites you to enter into these holy moments as experienced by our ancestors and to reclaim them as our own. The second half of the book focuses on holy moments in our daily lives, divine encounters that occur simply because we are human beings imbued with divinity. Divine encounters that occur because we’ve been given souls.

This book is a testimony to the preciousness of life. In the first half of the volume, you’ll walk with God in the garden, calling out to Adam and Eve. You’ll stand as witness to the moment of Creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s ladder, and the Golden Calf. You’ll hear the voices of Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother. You’ll leave Egypt, dance with Miriam by the sea, build the Tabernacle, and experience prophecy. You’ll encounter the Divine through experiences of our forebearers.

In the second half of the book, you’ll also be asked—perhaps challenged—to experience the Divine in your daily life. You’ll be asked to imagine flying between two horizons, step inside the light, and ride the river of life. You’ll encounter spiritual vandals. You’ll be asked to find the ethics in your eyes, the ethics in your hands, the ethics in your arms, and the ethics in your heart. You’ll experience the Divine in the poetry of living.

This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer is the third book in a trilogy with This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings and This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. This Grateful Heart focuses on time and seasons, providing prayers and meditations for our days, both the holy and the mundane. This Joyous Soul turns to the siddur, the prayer book, offering alternative readings for our classic liturgy. This Precious Life examines divine encounters in sacred texts and in our daily lives. This Precious Life is intended for personal meditation and communal prayer, as well as religious and spiritual counseling. As a book of meditations, it offers depth and breadth of emotion. As a spiritual guide, it brings intimacy and tenderness, humility and gratitude, supported by a foundation of strength, faith, and hope.

My goal in writing This Precious Life is to open you, the reader, to deeply experiencing moments of divine encounter using the liturgist’s hand and the poet’s eye to illuminate holy connection, to help you uplift your prayers and sing in praise. Along with those lofty ideas, there are practical uses for this volume. Use these offerings in your daily prayers, in writing divrei Torah, and in learning about and discussing the weekly parashah. Clergy and Jewish educators might consider using them as part of adult, teen, and Hebrew school education, as well as in Torah classes, sermons, conversion programs, counseling with congregants, and interfaith dialogue. Most importantly, my hope is that you are inspired to write new prayers in your own voice, based on your experiences of the Divine.

From here, sitting at my desk in Jerusalem, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to know what the state of the world—or the state of our worldview—will be when we return to the world or when you hold this book in your hands. What will happen to our trust, social interactions, the economy, our lives? How will we move through the world, day by day? How will the generation of children who sheltered at home be shaped by these precarious times?

This much is clear: This is a precious life. Your life. My life. Our lives. All precious. May we all live with a grateful heart and a joyous soul, sanctifying this precious life.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books

Gratitude and Tears: Finding Hope During COVID-19

These days, witnessing and receiving acts of kindness makes me cry. In this strange time of coronavirus, most of those tears come from witnessing something online. They are gentle tears. Only a few tears at a time. Almost imperceptible to others.

I know these tears. They are the tears that weave joy and suffering with the holiness of witnessing. The kind of tears that, until now, I’ve experienced only during Kabbalat Shabbat when the shaliach tzibbur – the prayer leader – captures the essence of the Sabbath in the song. To me, the tears themselves are a prayer.

A few days ago, in one of those moments of holy tears, I understood that getting through the COVID-19 isolation will be easier for me if I seek out moments of gratitude. (Here’s my CCAR One Minute of Wonder on gratitude.) But how? I already write a gratitude list every day. Perhaps by sharing my gratitude with others, and reading about the gratitude of others. The idea jumped out as a way to strengthen my own practice of gratitude while simultaneously helping others.

As a result, I launched a new Facebook group, Grateful Heart, Joyous Soul, Precious Life, which offers the opportunity for members to post about gratitude in our daily lives. Within a day, more than four hundred people were on the page posting and reading about each other’s moments of gratitude. To help her congregants cope, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Congregation in London invited her members to join and to share their gratitude in the Facebook group.

I’m posting a daily “gratitude prompt” to help us all see different ways to be grateful. Gratitude prompts will be wide-ranging—words, music, and images. For example, there will be a song gratitude day in which people are encouraged to post links to their favorite songs. We’ve already had a flower gratitude day, in which people can post photos of beautiful flowers to create an online bouquet. There will be prompts for gratitude for safety, security, family, friends, favorite appliances, favorite memories, and many more.

The name of the page was a blinding flash of the obvious for me. It’s the combination of the titles of my two current CCAR Press books—This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings—as well as the working title of my next CCAR Press book, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer. Gratitude leads to joy. Joy and gratitude lead to a deeper understanding of the preciousness of each moment of our lives. Grateful Heart. Joyous Soul. Precious Life.

You are invited to join. And you are invited to share the link with your congregation, as Rabbi Mulstein did.

In the spirit of joy, gratitude, and the preciousness of life, here’s “Prayer of Gratitude” from This Joyous Soul:

Prayer of Gratitude

Today is a gift,
O my God,
To know Your world,
To receive Your blessings.

Rock of Ages,
Your works surround us,
Daily signs of awe and wonder,
Daily guides to joy and service.
Bless me with hands of strength,
A heart of courage,
A mind of understanding.
Bless me with a voice of praises,
A life of gratitude,
Days filled with hope and love.

“Prayer of Gratitude” by Alden Solovy, © 2019 CCAR Press. All rights reserved.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist and poet who has written five books including This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, both from CCAR Press. He is currently the Liturgist-in-Residence at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Categories
News

Finding a Finkelstein: The Art of Learning to Pray

Isadore Finkelstein z”l taught me how to pray. I was a youth. He was ancient and timeless. My very best Shabbat mornings in synagogue as a teen as occurred when I sat near him. 

Mr. Finkelstein didn’t teach me the words of the prayers. He didn’t teach me the halachot – the legal structure – of prayer. He didn’t teach me the stories of the siddur, our prayer book. In fact, he never once instructed me in t’fillah. I learned how to pray by watching him, by listening to him, by feeling his prayer.

Born in 1894 in Bogoria, Poland, Mr. Finkelstein brought to his prayers an old-world yearning for God and a deep passion for the Jewish people. From Mr. Finkelstein I learned how prayer sounds, both in the ear and in the heart. From him I learned how to move in prayer, both the physical motions and the spiritual choreography. From him I learned how prayer connects heaven to earth, how prayer connects God to humanity.

Here’s the secret to learning how to pray: sit next to someone whose heart is filled with the love of God. Then listen. Your prayers will never be the same. Listen to how that voice shines, listen to the sparkling moments of love, the harmonies of hope, the undertones of grief, the hints of shofar resonant in that voice ready to pierce the highest heavens, and the yearning for a better world. You are climbing the mountain to Sinai. You are are carrying the Ark of the Covenant. You are witnessing miracles.

All you need to do is to find an Isadore Finkelstein. Sit nearby and listen with your inner, most vulnerable, open, heart-centered being. Then, go to a classroom, to a book or to a beit midrash to learn the details. There, the deep indescribable experience of prayer will meet the fountain of wisdom that is our siddur.

This is a paradox. The inner life of prayer – the indescribable, ineffable essence of prayer – is strengthened by our knowledge of the words themselves, their history, the intention behind them, the classic understandings, the new interpretations, the seasonal rhythms, and the thinking that called these prayers into being. That knowledge, however, gets prayer exactly nowhere without a heart, without a soul, without the deepest desire to do God’s will. Not one bit of prayer ‘book learning’ has, by itself, ascended to the gates of mercy.

The problem for Jewish educators is that no classroom learning – no matter how it is presented or disguised – will substitute for the experience of hearing and praying next to an Isadore Finkelstein. If the experience in the synagogue is flat and uninspiring, no amount of study will make up for it. The Beit Kenesset must pulse with love and the worship of God.

Traditional worship is often long on technique and short of God. The prayers exquisitely follow the Siddur and the rules, but there isn’t enough ‘Finkelstein.’ Liberal worship is often long on spirit and short of God. The prayers are beautifully sung and enjoyed, but there isn’t enough ‘Finkelstein.’ A technically perfect service is not necessarily prayer. Neither is a joyously sung nor a wondrously inspired service.

The ongoing conversation about how to teach and inspire prayer will simply vanish when enough people aspire to become Finkelsteins, masters of t’fillah, fountains of devotion in articulating prayer.

We don’t have enough masters of prayer to station one strategically at every synagogue, temple, shul, Hebrew school, day school and beit midrash. We don’t have enough Finkelsteins to go around. My hunch is that the Jewish centers that are thriving in robust prayer are attracting – or were created by – modern-day Finkelsteins, davening masters, lovers of the art and the act of yearning for heaven through prayer.

Jewish prayer masters pray from the most secret, sacred place within themselves. They pray a uniquely personal combination of prayers of the heart and traditional liturgy, in community with others, with the desire to be in conversation with God. They bring a deep understanding of the Siddur, and the desire to deepen that understanding. They are unconventional traditionalists, speaking the inner voice of prayer. This is not as daunting a task as it sounds. All it takes is a willingness to learn and a commitment to pray.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments(CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available!

Categories
Books spirituality

Psalm 27: My ‘Go To’ Spiritual Walkabout Song

Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Angela Gold, z”l, whose neshama and harmonies blessed everyone she met.

I sing to myself. Not the “singing-in-the-shower” variety. Not the “sing-along-with-my-playlist-while-I-clean-the-apartment” variety. It’s the moment of “this-is-the-song-in-my-heart.” A song too big to hold in.

The song is always the same. Over and over. Usually under my breath, but if I think I’m alone in a staircase – which almost exclusively happens as I head to classes at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies – I might belt it out, just to hear the echo. I sing:

Here in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, I suspect that anyone who overhears knows what I’m singing: “One thing have I asked of Adonai, how I long for it, that I may dwell in the house of the Adonai all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of Adonai, and to dwell in the palace.” It’s the fourth verse of Psalm 27, the essence of the Psalm. I sing the Paul Schoenfield rendition.

This spontaneous a cappella vibrates with my faith, a paradoxical faith, at that. On one hand, I believe with a perfect faith that – at any moment, perhaps the very next one – the glory of God’s presence might just appear. Perhaps right there in the stairway, on the next landing. On the other hand, regardless of whether I see it or feel it in the moment, God is right here, right now. Yes, God is here, and I’m still seeking God’s house, knocking at the gates of mercy, seeking the throne of holiness.

This contradiction is the essence of my yearning as I sing the line: knowing that I’m already in God’s presence, and yet knowing that I only can remain there by continually seeking God.

In her forthcoming book from CCAR Press, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27, Rabbi Debra J. Robbins writes: “Sit in the house of God. It’s the one thing that I really want. But now that I’m here, what do I do?”

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is a guide to using Psalm 27 to prepare for the high holidays. Every day from the second day of Elul, through Shemini Atzeret – including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – traditional Ashkenazi prayer includes the recitation of this psalm.

With this book, Rabbi Robbins has created a guide to prepare spiritually for the Days of Awe by examining phrases from each line of the psalm each of the 50-plus-day period. Nine of the phrases she uses in this intentional spiritual practice, nearly one of every five days, come from 27:4, my walking tune.

Of the words “achat sha’alti” – “one thing I’ve asked” of God – she wonders: “If I can ask only one thing of God, what would it be?” Of the word “u’le’vaker” – “and to dwell” – she notices the connection to the word “boker,” or morning. Am I ready, aware and eager, each morning, to witness God’s presence? About the words “b’veit Adonai” – the house of God – she asks: “This is God’s house. But is God home?” We are invited to explore each phrase with a series of steps, including prayer, meditation, journaling and blessing.

Fifty days of reciting Psalm 27 as part of the High Holiday season is a practice that’s relatively new in the history of Jewish liturgy, beginning about 200 to 300 years ago. Rabbi Robbins has turned that daily recitation into an opportunity for spiritual growth before, during and just after the Days of Awe, the entire holy season from Elul to Shemi Atzeret.

For me, Rabbi Robbins has added new ways to think about – and to sing – my ‘go to’ spiritual walkabout song.

Click here for a guitar rendition of the Schoenfield setting for this verse. Here are settings by Chava Mirel, and Beth Hamon.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments(CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, now available!

Categories
Chanukah Healing

Blackboards in Pittsburgh

For two weeks before Shabbat Chanukah, four black boards with a question at the top and multi-colored chalk in the chalk trays were placed in the entrance commons of Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh. The question: “Chanukah means Dedication. What do you (re-) dedicate yourself to this year?” All who visited the congregation had the opportunity to write on the boards their answers to the question.

On Thursday before Shabbat, I took those answers and created “Rededication, A Hanukah Prayer from Pittsburgh,” which Rabbi Sharyn Henry and I edited together. At Friday night services, I read the prayer at a joint service of Rodef Shalom and Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha. The goal: add a bit of healing by using the hopes and ideals of the community as the core of a new piece of liturgy.

The week before, the Pittsburgh community marked the shloshim — the thirtieth day of the post-burial mourning process – following the October 27 attack that left 11 dead and seven injured as congregants of Tree of Life were gathering for Shabbat morning services.

This is our second collaboration using black boards. In 2015, we used the same blackboards for an “Elul Memory Project.” The goal: gather memories from the community to use as the basis of customized Yizkor prayer.

Rabbi Henry was inspired to conceive these black board projects by the work of artist Candy Chang’s international public art project “Before I Die.” In that project, artist Chang created large outdoor public blackboards with a series of blank lines inviting passers-by to fill in the end of the sentence: “Before I die I want to _______.”

For both of our projects at Rodef Shalom, I wrote the initial draft of the liturgical combination of the responses, then we edited the pieces together. I also read both pieces from the bima. In both cases, after services, people approached us both to share how they felt hearing their contributions included in the prayer.

Part of the success is a thoughtful approach to the formulation of the question. For the Elul Memory Project, Rabbi Henry and I tested two different formulations of the question with staff, asking how the structure of the question might change the answer.

The blackboards have proven to be a useful means of capturing both community memories and congregational hopes and dreams. It is a project that can be easily adapted to a variety of holidays or community experiences.

Here is the prayer we created for Shabbat Hanukkah:

Rededication, A Hanukah Prayer from Pittsburgh

The oil,
That one cruse of pure oil,
Made holy for the dedication of the Temple,
That should have lasted only one day,
Lasted for eight days
Until new, pure oil for the Eternal Lamp
Was prepared.
We rededicated holy space
To God and the people of Israel.

That light shines now in Pittsburgh.
The ancient light, 2,000 years old,
Shimmering across millennia from the dedication of our ancient home,
Mingles with the glow of the lamps we light tonight,
Our rededication to:

Family and friends,
Patience, Empathy, Sympathy.
Health and sobriety.
Meeting neighbors.
Learning from each other.
Petting more animals.
Hugging.
Listening.
Breathing.

We rededicate ourselves to kindness,
Building a more peaceful world,
Combating hate,
Acts of compassion to one another.
Tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Tzedakah, giving charity.
Taking risks and being vulnerable.
Being the action of love.
Simply… being.

This is not easy
With broken hearts.
Yet this is who we are.
Inspired by the past,
Inspired by our faith,
We rededicate ourselves,
In this new generation,
To holiness and sacred convocation.

We will be vigilant in support of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish education.
We will be vigilant in advancing the dignity and the rights of all people.
Positive thinking and openness to new ideas,
Considering other points of view,
Trusting the mystery of life.
Paying forward these gifts.

To speak gently, with fewer words,
Criticizing less and helping more.
Simply doing the right things,
With dedication to truth.
With dedication to understanding.
With Peace –
Saalam, Shalom –
Udo, Paz, Vrede, Mиp, Paix, Friede –
In every language,
In every land,
Peace.

The flame from that oil,
That one cruse of pure oil,
Still shines upon us,
Within us,
From those days
To this season.

By Alden Solovy and Rabbi Sharyn H. Henry
© 2018 Alden Solovy and Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012),L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016).He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings,now available!

Categories
Books Prayer

A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings

As wildfires burned in California, hundreds of missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza. Fire on the ground and fire from the air, with people I know and love in both places. Just a week before, 12 people were murdered in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. A week before that, the largest-ever U.S. antisemitic massacre was perpetrated at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation, Pittsburgh. All this occurred against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism world-wide and contentious U.S. mid-term elections.

My pen has been grieving, the ink pouring out prayers with titles like these: “Missiles from Gaza,” “As Fires Rage” and “Taharot in Pittsburgh.” In those 2.5 weeks, I wrote a baker’s dozen of ‘responsa prayers,’ dealing with immediate concerns in the wake of news events. Writing ‘responsa prayer’ is one of the roles of a modern liturgist, to give our shared experiences a voice of prayer.

There’s a reason why these pieces resonate. Our prayer book, the siddur, has tuned our ears to the many voices of prayer. We know the voice of grief and the voice of yearning. We know the voice of joy and the voice of hope. We have been praying some of these prayers for more than 1,000 years. The prayers call out to us, as they did to our fathers and mothers.

There can also be a disconnect. While the siddur gives us the spiritual foundation to connect to our inner hearts of blessing, at times the language doesn’t fit.  Another role of a modern Jewish liturgist is to bridge that gap, opening doorways back into the prayer book. The goal is to capture the familiar cadences and themes – and at times the familiar idiom – in a way that is true our current sensibilities and language.

The Reform siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, addresses these opposite forces with a faithful, contemporary translation of Hebrew texts, as well as a broad set of alternative readings on the left-hand page of two-page spreads.

This is the goal of my new book, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings. Structured to reflect the morning service found in Mishkan T’filah, this collection provides a new set of ‘left-hand pages’ to enliven our worship. The prayers in This Joyous Soul invite a deeply personal prayer experience that strengthens our connection to Jewish tradition. It’s written to inspire each of us to make the traditional daily liturgy our own. So, my hope is that it will be used both by individuals as part of their personal prayers and will be adopted for use in congregations throughout the Movement.

For generations, the siddur has given voice to our deepest desires. Every generation has left a mark on this great book that spans centuries, continents and cultures. This Joyous Soul is one contribution to that great endeavor: keeping the prayers of our ancestors vital and alive, with a new voice for these ancient yearnings.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available for pre-order from CCAR Press and available by Thanksgiving 2018!