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High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

A New Year, A New Experience: Leading my First High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh

In an interview for Sh’ma Journal in 2012, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi stated that he saw the Hasidic idea of “Rebbe,” as opposed to the ordained leadership role of a rabbi, as a fluid one. Rabbi Schachter Shalomi remarked, “I believe that in our day, living as we do in a democratic context, we need different people — men and women — in a community to function as rebbes at different times, helping people grow in their relationships with God… Mostly, I try to listen to what people say, how they say it, and when they say it, and then I ask what lies behind these presentations. What does this person’s neshamah (soul) need in order to live more harmoniously with God and creation?”

This High Holy Days, I was stepping into this position for the first time. This was only temporary, as Rabbi Schachter Shalomi would have it, but with definite purpose. As I approached Erev Rosh HaShanah, I was terrified. Had I picked the right prayers? Would my voice cause people to rush out of the room covering their ears? Would I come off as pompous, self-righteous, distant? Would I alienate this room full of college students at a Hillel just now finding its footing? This tornado of anxiety whirled around in my head, leaving me physically quaking as I began the service. Although I looked out at a sea of unfamiliar faces sitting with solemn expressions, unsure if they were solemn because of my terrible leading of prayer, or because of Rosh HaShanah, I tried to focus on my role: delivering the meaning of the holiday in translatable terms.

Sooner than I thought, the service closed without a hitch. My wife beamed with pride. Many strangers approached me thanking me and telling me I did a great job. Of course, this was expected – I couldn’t imagine these individuals saying anything disparaging no matter how much I had butchered their expectations. Then a woman, a stranger herself to the community just passing through on a road trip, came up to me and said, “You didn’t even look nervous at all! I would have been a mess up there.”

Now, that comment I hadn’t expected. Then I thought back and remembered Rabbi Schachter Shalomi’s idea of inhabiting the space of the Rebbe. Somewhere at the start of the Amida, I had entered a state of flow. The role of Rebbe had been placed on me by the many eyes switching their gaze from the machzor, to me, and back to the machzor, and I had stepped up to the challenge, similarly gazing down to the machzor, then back to the congregation, then back down to the machzor. In this exchange we entered into a moment of relation via the words of Mishkan HaNefesh.

The new machzor was my bridge into gaining a level of security in this new, alien situation. Had I been reading from Gates of Repentance, I almost certainly would have had greater difficulty finding my way into the role. The baggage that I carry connected to Gates of Repentance would have weighed me down significantly. Instead, I had been given the gift of ownership. Mishkan HaNefesh contains a great deal of alternative readings, from essays to poetry, written by people of all stripes. My services contained readings from individuals as disparate as Samson Rafael Hirsch and Richard Feynman. As the shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, I was given the opportunity to pick from the many different elements of the machzor to attend to what I thought the community’s neshama would need. Not only this, but I was also able to use the digital files of the machzor to help myself.  By importing them to my iPad, I was able to alter the machzor itself to fit my needs. Instead of having a binder full of papers, I was able to smoothly transition from page to page, removing pages I was not going to use, highlighting readings I intended on doing or had handed out to participants to do, and typing in iyyunim and congregational directions so that I could read them clearly.

Combining the multivocality of the machzor with the technology of my iPad, I was able to design a service that would speak to the congregation, as well as guide me through the motions of leading without my having to remove myself from the moment. I simply needed to continue scrolling through the digital files, knowing that I had prepared them with great thought beforehand.

In this way, Mishkan HaNefesh gave me the tools to successfully occupy the role of Rebbe for this community’s High Holy Days. I was able to take the time well before the services to reflect on what a congregation such as Gettysburg Hillel would need, choose from the machzor the pieces that fit best, and then allow myself to inhabit this new role with the machzor as my guide and bridge to the community. Not only did I come away from this year’s High Holy Days having accomplished a new feat on my way to becoming a rabbi, I was also able to be a part of some of the most meaningful services I had attended in my life. The community at Gettysburg Hillel had a great willingness to participate, welcomed those from outside of the college, and gave me the gift of accomplishment by entrusting me with their High Holy Day services. The warm community of Gettysburg and the utility of Mishkan HaNefesh ushered me into 5775 with a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment by providing the environment for my first step into the role of the Rebbe. May this year be one of great experience and accomplishment for all!

Andy Kahn is a second year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He is currently the intern at the CCAR. 

For more information on Mishkan HaNefesh, click here or write to machzor@ccarnet.org.

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High Holy Days Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

Blessings are Expressions of Gratitude

One of my favorite parts of any Jewish worship service is the section sometimes labeled ‘Nisim she’b’chol Yom’ – everyday miracles. We are presented with a series of 1-line sentences that all begin by blessing God as we take a moment to contemplate every little moment that has already passed since the moment we became aware that we were awake that morning, right up to the present. Blessings for the ability to stretch, to open our eyes, to place our feet on the ground, for the clothes we are wearing, and so on.  I often introduce this section of the liturgy at a Bar or Bat mitzvah service because I think its something that everyone in the room can relate to and appreciate. Sometimes I see nods of recognition and see a spark as some in the room realize the power in our fixed liturgy to make us more mindful and appreciative of the ordinary – the things that we take for granted until we no longer have them.  Sometimes I feel some sadness as I watch rows of young teens who are unfamiliar with communal prayer, looking uncomfortable and self-conscious, unable to accept the invitation to verbalize out loud an appreciation for something as simple as waking up.  They will often smile in recognition when I admit that there are many mornings when my first thought, rather than being an expression of blessing, is more like ‘Urgghh… do I have to get up?!’ But that’s when I realize that the power of a repetitive ritual that calls on me to recognize ordinary blessings out loud is the power to shift my whole orientation to the day ahead.  Now that is miraculous!

In our new High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, we are offered the traditional blessings – a list that we can find in the Babylonian Talmud, indicating that they are over 1500 years old. We are also offered other more recent texts that express the same sentiment. On Rosh Hashanah morning, one of these options was ‘Miracles’ by Walt Whitman. In this poem, Whitman invites us to experience the everyday through the lens of wonder and amazement:

Why! Who makes mach of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love –
or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of an August forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds – or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down – or of stars shining so quiet and bring,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new-moon in May…
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles…
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle…
Every spear of grass – the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women,
and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

These blessings are not prayers that ask anything of God. They are simply expressions of Gratitude. A way of growing this character trait of beauty within each one of us. If we want to approach the New Year with an intention to change and repair, this simple practice of morning affirmations can be quite transformative if we choose to make them into a regular habit.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

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Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Hin’ni: The First Step Into the High Holy Day Pulpit

Last year I was in Jerusalem for the High Holy Days. The experience of being in Israel for this focal point of the Jewish year, especially as it coincided with my entering into Rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, provided a new layer of meaning to the holidays for me. Praying with my community while looking out into the Old City through the gorgeous windows of Blaustein Hall in Beit Shmuel, I was drawn to connect to the past of our people. For millennia, the hill that I was gazing upon has been the central focus of this very service. Our ancient predecessors worshiped the same God, at the same time of year, by making animal sacrifices on the hill framed right in front of the entire HUC-JIR Jerusalem community, where our eyes rested as we prayed through our traditional liturgy.

The High Holy Days are often described as an ominous period that evokes reflection on mortality and the worth of our lives. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch wrote, quoted in the Rosh Hashanah Morning portion of Mishkan haNefesh, “we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.”

I have never felt this theme of the High Holy Days as acutely as I do now. In stark contrast to last year, in which our services were planned out and led by the faculty of HUC-JIR, this year the responsibility is all mine. In the coming weeks I will, for the first time, be leading a community in their High Holy Day worship. No musical accompanist, no senior authority to follow – just myself. This is a humbling prospect, and one that certainly makes me contemplate the path that led me here.

The majesty and power of the High Holy Days has often been lost on me. As a child, I looked forward to Yom Kippur only for the annual break-fast we held at my house with our community of friends. Dramatic, operatic choirs and music, prayers speaking to a king-like God of which I saw no proof in my life, and sweating in an overcrowded sanctuary, did not draw me into the spirit of teshuvah, nor did it make me feel connected to the tradition being put forth. Instead, I felt alienated and, for many years, stopped attending High Holy Day services altogether.

Now, it is my turn to be the one leading a community of people who may or may not feel completely alienated by the service they are going to attend. More likely than not, most of the people in attendance at the small Hillel where I will be leading are going to be searching for a sense of home, a sense of community, and a sense of meaning. They will want the familiar, but will also want to be engaged in something that intelligently challenges their worldview. They will be searching, as I have in the past, for something that connects them our tradition in the way they have heard others speak about the transformative power of the rituals and liturgy. When I consider the fact that it is my responsibility to bring this about, the opening to Hin’ni speaks to me more than it ever has before: “Here I am. So poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You to whom Israel sings praise.”

Many of my classmates are in a similar position. Some are going to other Hillels, some are going to small communities throughout our country from Wyoming to Arkansas, all with the same new experience of the High Holy Days awaiting them as fall arrives. Each location has its own set of circumstances around the days, but the main theme is the same: We are no longer congregants in the pews, we are now leaders on the pulpits.

mishkan_hanefesh_520x250I feel incredibly lucky that, in spite of my apprehension and fear, I have the opportunity to make use of the new Reform machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, as my guide for leading this community. Although I grew up using Gates of Repentance, I still associate it with the alienation and frustration of my earlier years. It is a wonderful coincidence that for my fresh start with the High Holy Days I am gifted the experience of using a new form of our tradition as the foundation for my leadership. We are in this together, and both of us are pretty new to the task. I hope that Mishkan haNefesh and I will be able to provide the students of Gettysburg College Hillel meaningful holiday worship that invites rather than alienates, that inspires rather than bores. I look for to writing further about this experience after the gates have closed, and we are on solid footing in 5775. Shanah Tovah!

Andy Kahn is a second year Rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, and is also a Rabbinic Intern at CCAR Press.

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High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

To Be – I Am Alive Again: Further Reflections on Mishkan HaNefesh

When the new edition of a Reform Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals, Mishkan Tefilah, was published a few years ago, some of the changes and some of the choices embedded in the liturgy necessitated conversations in congregations about how we would pray some of the prayers.

One example was the second paragraph of the Amidah, often referred to as the ‘Gevurot’ (strength/power), for it begins with the phrase, ata gibor l’olam Adonai – Your power is eternal, Adonai. In earlier generations of Reform prayer books a change had been made to the language of this prayer as you would find it in a Conservative or Orthodox prayer book. In three instances the traditional prayer referred to God as m’chayei hameitim, literally ‘who brings the dead back to life’. For decades in Reform congregations we recited this prayer with a change in the wording, declaring m’chayey hakol – who gives life to all things. Conceptually, this didn’t rule out the idea, discussed in early rabbinic sources, that one day the dead would come back to life. But neither did it assert this doctrinal belief in the way that the traditional phrase seemed to do so definitively.

So why, when a new edition of a Siddur was created, do we now find the words ‘hameitim’ offered in brackets as an alternative choice to ‘hakol’? There were those who argued that there were allegorical ways of understanding ‘who brings the dead back to life’ and that we could use the more ancient liturgical language without having to accept a messianic doctrine of the revival of the dead. We all have times when we feel like we’ve hit a dead end. Maybe we are stuck trying to solve a problem at work, deal with a difficult family member, or so lost in grief that we cannot imagine ever experiencing the joy and blessing of life again. And yet… somehow we do. We go home and we start the next day anew, and maybe we see a solution to our problem that was beyond our grasp the day before. Perhaps we try to reach out to that family member in a different way, or perhaps something changes in their life and we unexpectedly get a message from them to indicate a desire for reconciliation. And while we have good days and bad days, perhaps a grandchild comes to visit and brings us joy in the midst of our grief, or a walk in the fields on a particularly beautiful day brings us some awareness of beauty. Each of these are experiences of m’chayey hameitim – we have had a powerful experience of a revival of life. Our ‘being’ is not only in the past tense; now we feel some hope in the potential of our future ‘being’ too.

In Mishkan HaNefesh, the draft Rosh Hashanah morning liturgy presents us with a poem by the Israeli poet, Zelda, as a contemporary text facing the Gevurot passage. In this poem Zelda, in the midst of grief, reflects on how the smallest things around her can suddenly bring her back to life:

 

In the morning I said to myself:
Life’s magic will never come back.
It won’t come back.

All at once the sunshine in my house
is alive for me
and the table with its bread
is gold
and the cups on the table and the flower –
all gold.
And what of the sorrow?
Even in the sorrow, radiance.

 

The closing phrase of the blessing (chatimah, or ‘seal’) is translated: You are the Source of all blessing, the life force surging within all things. Bringing our awareness to all that surges with that life force can open up the possibility of feeling the presence of blessing in our lives once more. It is an invitation to return to life.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

 

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High Holy Days Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

Will You Hear My Cry? More From Mishkan HaNefesh, the New Reform Machzor

One of the most emotionally heart-tugging prayers and melodies of the High Holy Days is a petition called Sh’ma Koleinu. In a beautiful new translation in the forthcoming Mishkan HaNefesh, we pray:


Hear our call, Adonai our God. Show us compassion
Accept our prayer with love and goodwill.
Take us back, Adonai; let us come back to You; renew our days as in the past.
Hear our words, Adonai; understand our unspoken thoughts.
May the speech of our mouth and our heart’s quiet prayer
Be acceptable to You, Adonai, our rock and our redeemer.
Do not cast us away from Your presence, or cut us off from Your holy spirit.
Do not cast us away when we are old; as our strength diminishes,
Do not forsake us.
Do not forsake us, Adonai; be not far from us, our God.
With hope, Adonai we await You;
Surely, You, Adonai our God – You will answer.
(CCAR, (c) 2014, All rights reserved).

Take a listen to this recording, with a melody by Levandowski, that I grew up hearing throughout my youth in the UK (click on the 2nd sound link when the new page opens up). 

Put aside theology for a moment. If you are not sure what God-idea you believe in, you could get stuck on the literal words here. But look instead at the human emotion being poured out. It is a heart crying out for relationship. To be received. To be held. To be seen. To not feel alone and abandoned, uncertain of what lies ahead. Uncomfortable when we sit quietly long enough to notice what thoughts, anxieties, doubts, and self-disgust arise within us. We want to be accepted. We want to be received. We need relationships despite our flaws and imperfections.

To me, this gets to the heart of the human condition. It is a crying out that has been distilled into a few sentences that captures so much of what many of us feel in the dark, when no-one is watching.

As with so many of the core prayers of our High Holy Day liturgy, the new CCAR machzor also offers us an alternative text drawn from a more contemporary source. On Kol Nidre, the text that is offered is a poem by Rachel, an Israeli poet. It’s opening verses, like the prayer they face, express an outpouring of emotion:


Will you hear my voice, you who are far from me?
Will you hear my voice, wherever you are;
A voice calling aloud, a voice silently weeping,
Endlessly demanding a blessing.

This busy world is vast, its ways are many;
Paths meet for a moment, then part forever;
A man goes on searching, but his feet stumble,
He cannot find that which he has lost…


Hear me! Help me find meaning in all of this vastness! Help me live in relationship and connection to others. Accept me, and help me learn to accept myself.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

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High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

What Are We Doing Here?: Mishkan HaNefesh and the High Holy Days

You are probably aware, if you’ve sat through High Holy Day services in years past, that these worship services run longer than most other days of the year. If you have not really studied or examined the words on the pages closely before, you may not be aware of all the ‘extras’ that are part of the High Holy Day liturgy. Of course, the Shofar service is one of the most immediately recognizable additions. And the singing of Avinu Malkeinu. And you may have spent many a year struggling with the medieval piyyut (poem) U’netaneh Tokef (that’s the one that contains those uncomfortable lines, ‘who will live and who will die’). 

But perhaps you don’t remember a series of paragraphs that are inserted into the Amidah that extend the section known in Hebrew as k’dushat Hashem – the Sanctification of the Name. That is the section where we repeat 3 times, kadosh kadosh kadosh… holy holy holy is the Eternal God of Hosts.

The reason why this section of prayer is extended with some additional paragraphs is because the ‘sanctification of God’s name’ was, historically, a big theme of the Jewish New Year. In ancient times there would be an official day of the year to celebrate and honor each year of a king’s reign. Think of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. There was a lot of fuss and fanfare as her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated back in 2012.  Something of this ancient ritual was borrowed in Jewish ritual – one day a year we recognize and honor the coronation of the King of Kings.  In our Rosh HaShanah liturgy we do this when we ‘sanctify God’s name.’ But what does that mean exactly?

The three additional passages that become part of the sanctification prayer over the High Holy Days each begin with the word u’v’chen, meaning ‘therefore.’ What follows in the 3 passages are an ancient liturgists idea of what the world would look like if we all IMG_0716acted in ways that demonstrated our attempt to bring a sense of God’s holiness into our world. First, all of creation would feel a sense of awe and reverence for God. Second, the Jewish people would no longer struggle because they would receive honor and respect and, third, we’d all be acting righteously and we would no longer be witness to evil.

Now, putting the history lesson and the ancient language of kings aside for a moment, what we have here, right in the center of one of the central prayers of our liturgy, are words that remind us that we’ve really failed to do much of meaning if we dutifully sit in synagogue and mindlessly recite words, unless the time we spend in reflection and connection remind and inspire us that, when we get up, we make meaning by doing. That’s why I love some of the alternative, contemporary readings that our upcoming new machzorMishkan haNefesh, has placed across from the three traditionalu’v’chen passages emphasize the centrality of our actions if we really want to do honor to God’s name and bring holiness into our world.  My favorite of the passages is one that I intend to make the focus of this section of worship this year  in my congregation – it is an adaptation of a prayer first written by Rabbi Jack Reimer and published in New Prayers for the High Holy Days in 1971. It begins:

We cannot merely pray to You, O God
to banish war,
for You have filled the world with paths to peace
if only we would take them.
We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them…

And, following additional passages in a similar mode, it concludes:

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.

I know how easy it is to feel frustrated in the ritual of sitting and praying over the High Holy Days. I know how easy it is to look around a room and wonder how many of the people we see will leave the sanctuary after a couple of hours of reciting righteous words and exert themselves to live according to those words. I know how it feels because I have had those thoughts and feelings, sitting as a congregant in years past. But I have come to appreciate that with all things in life, I most often act and do with greater care and greater impact when I have first taken sufficient time to contemplate and consider all aspects of the task that lies before me – not only what needs to be done, but who needs to be included, what challenges face us, and how we can achieve something collaboratively.

So it is with the High Holy Days. There are a great many words on the pages that lie before us. But they are there not to numb us into mindless recitation, but to prod and cajole us into action. Action that, when we rededicate ourselves to our purpose each New Year, might be that much more energized, thoughtful, and effective because we took the reflective time that the High Holy Days give to us to do better.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

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Books High Holy Days Machzor

Machzor Blog: Rediscovering the Sh’ma

When I pray, words wash over me.  The ideas they carry fill my brain.  The images they convey float through my mind.  The feelings they evoke dance in my heart.  But I don’t even notice the letters that comprise them — the shapes and the lines — because I’ve been trained to fuse them into words, and to treat the words only as springboards to ideas, images, and feelings.  I rarely pay attention to the letters themselves; they simply dissolve as my eyes pour over them.

What a jolt, then, to turn to Page 14a in the draft of the Yom Kippur Evening Service in Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor currently being piloted. That’s where I re-discovered the Sh’ma.  Just as in Mishkan T’filah, the lettering of the Sh’ma gets special treatment.  It’s the largest in the book and the font is distinct, at once elegant and archaic.  It unfurls like a parchment buried for millennia, unseen by human eyes until just now, by me.  It demands my attention.

shema

 

The font evokes the calligraphy of a caravan-leader’s map, with its curvaceous lines and serifs.  At the same time, it’s modern, clean, and strong.  The lines swoop to the left, creating the feeling of forward movement.  The black of the top line is darker than the second, mimicking the volumes with which we sing them.

The unique font of the Sh’ma helps me see how Hebrew letters are constructed from fundamental strokes.  It shows me the ‘yud’ in the ‘vav,’ and the ‘vav’ in the ‘tav’ and ‘chav sofit.’  ‘Hay’ contains a ‘reish,’ and there’s an ‘ayin’ in the ‘sin.’   

Some letters in this shema are pictograms for me.  The ‘lamed’ looks like a tulip, celebrating spring.  The ‘shin’ reminds me of a Viking vessel, crashing through the ocean.  In the ‘sin,’ my husband sees God’s “hand” holding the world.  The ‘reish’ is a cat, rresting on a mantel, purring contentedly.  The ‘mem’ is the same cat, stretching after her nap, meowing energetically.  The ‘mem sofit’ is the bearded face of an Assyrian trader.

Torah is written in black fire on white fire.  That image, from the Zohar, asks us to pay attention to the negative space created by a letter, not only its form.  Negative space is the space that surrounds and penetrates a subject.  It provides boundaries and contrast.  When we notice it, we come to understand that Torah is shaped by what’s missing as well as what’s there.  The negative space in this font is bulbous, bounded by curving lines.  It’s as if blocks of black have been burrowed into by critters.  The lacunae look like little cul-de-sacs, adding to the sense of travel.

No matter how it’s printed, the Sh’ma unifies all Jews, bringing us together like the tassels of a tallis.  When we recite it, divisions of time and place disappear.  We are all One.  This font, at once ancient and timeless, invites me to see with the eyes of the ancestors and to contemplate the hearts of our descendants.  It reminds me to broaden my scope.

I’m excited for my congregants to encounter the Sh’ma afresh in Mishkan HaNefesh.  As the Sh’ma is supposed to do, it calls us to pay attention.

Rabbi Dean Shapiro serves Temple Emanuel in Tempe, AZ

For more information on Mishkan HaNefesh or on piloting, please write to machzor@ccarnet.org

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High Holy Days Machzor Prayer

Machzor Blog: The Gates are Closing, and God’s Hand is Outstretched

The N’ilah service on late Yom Kippur afternoon is notable for its image of the Gates of Repentance closing their doors.  At this late and hungry hour, for the final time during the Day of Atonement, we are summoned to repentance.  The fact that many Sages argue we can actually delay our atonement to the end of the Sukkot holiday does not lessen the drama of the moment.

At the end of N’ilah, often as the sun has set, we will hear the final blast of the shofar.  We will also declare the most essential teaching of the entire season: God is Merciful!  We actually chant this seven times, just to make sure we get the point.  The Gates are closing, but the mercy of God never ends.

In our creative retrieval of oft-forgotten elements of traditional High Holy Day liturgy, the editorial team for the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, have seized on a central image that is suggested by a traditional N’ilah poem: God offers a hand to meet us halfway in our journey towards return.

In our draft version we feature the following version of the traditional prayer:

You hold our Your hand to those who do wrong;
Your right hand opens wise to receive those who return.
You teach us the true purpose of confession:
to turn our hands into instruments of good,
to cause no harm or oppression.
Receive us, as You promised, in the fullness of our heartfelt t’shuvah.

As we note in the draft version, the prayer focuses on God’s constant presence and compassion, even when we have fallen away from God’s expectations for us.  We are never too far from the ability to make peace with God.  The gates do close, the day will end, but the opportunity for return is never taken away from us.

In the first month of the year 5246  (September 10-October 9, 1485), B’nai Soncino (the Sons of Soncino) began the printing of the first Hebrew prayer book, Mahzor Minhag Roma (A Prayer Book of the Roman Rite), in the city of Soncino.  This book’s “You Hold Out Your Hand” is the only prayer printed in large type throughout. Could this have been done with Conversos (also known by the derogatory name, Marranos) in mind, those who had been forcibly converted but retained loyalty to their Jewish faith?  If so, the gesture is a poignant example of the everlasting mercy that God extends to us.

The message is not only reflective of God’s mercy.  It is also a call to us to practice the same mercy with those who have hurt us.  When possible, we hold out our hand to them.  With such a hand, the gates need never close.

The core editorial team of the upcoming machzor include Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Shelly Marder and Rabbi Leon Morris.  For information about Mishkan HaNefesh or about piloting, write to machzor@ccarnet.org. 

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and serves as the coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh.

This post originally appeared on RJ.org.

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High Holy Days Rabbis Reform Judaism

Holy Atheism!: The Role of Faith in Judaism

As Yom Kippur, our only holiday which focuses on our relationship with God, fades behind us, I am reminded of a 2007 article I read in Newsweek. Christopher Hitchens quoted these words Mother Teresa had spoken:

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”   “Such deep longing for God – and…repulsed-empty –no  faith- no  love- no  zeal.”

Mr. Hitchens points out that such doubt for Mother Teresa would indeed have caused crisis, not only for her, but for the catholics for whom she was such an inspiration.  “Mother Teresa doubted God?!”  In the height of heresy, Mr. Hitchens goes so far as to accuse her of (gasp) atheism!

I was puzzled reading Mr. Hitchens’ article.  Mother Teresa doubted God.  So what? As a child I feasted on stubborn Jonah, angry Moses, poor confused Saul, and the one from whom we inherited our name; the struggling Jacob/Israel. I expected to play Divine hide-and-seek with the God of my understanding.   And yet, Mother Theresa’s words reverberated deeply through my soul.

I’ve always seen faith as secondary to Judaism.  Great if you feel it, irrelevant if you don’t.  I can never get too excited about avowed Atheist Jews.  One doesn’t really need God in order to live a Jewish life.

To live a Jewish life, one need only follow mitzvot, doing so with a little compassion is even better.  It wasn’t Mother Teresa’s struggle or doubt which pulled at me.  It was her pain.  It was her pure human pain.

And this is the point of who we are as Jews.  Angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, silence…it is only natural that these words will relate to our search for the divine.  But for us, angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, and silence….these words should shock us, drive us into action when they relate to the feelings of human beings.

When he was hosted in the U.S. during WWII, my father was raised by Morris Bagno, one of the leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Uncle Morris’s entire life was dedicated to bringing dignity and justice to the laborer. Except for family s’machot (joyful events), he refused to enter a shul or synagogue, and, believing that religion drove a wedge between class unities, declined to send my father to cheder (Jewish day school).  He never even mentioned God.  But, this man’s influence on my father and on my family is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. Uncle Morris’s sense of social justice was the epitome of “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” (Justice, justice, shall you pursue). He lived Torah so absolutely that he was, in most aspects of his life, the walking personification of Torat Chayim—the  the living, breathing Torah.

In fact Uncle Morris was such an atheist, he would not have understood why Mother Teresa was so worked up.  If Uncle Morris heard her lament, he would have heard the cry of human suffering – and the silence surrounding it.  This, not divine longing, but a human being hearing silence…this would have moved him.   Just as it should move us.  Around us at every moment, near and far, are those who hear only silence and emptiness, those who wish to cry out, but cannot speak.  As a Jew, I know this silence is not God’s; it is ours.

We have neighbors and friends struggling with physical and mental illness, parents who cannot feed their children, and politicians so warped and distracted by their own job security that they cannot hear the weeping all around them. We have masses of citizens gassed and killed by their government’s own hand. “The silence and the emptiness is so great.” Is it ever.

And because it is, we do not have the luxury of struggling long with faith.  As Jews, we are commanded not to believe, but to do. While most religions also command us to action, to response, to feeling and hearing, and then helping – we are commanded with no expectation of belief.  We are commanded with prophetic urgency not to tolerate anguish in this world.

Can we lift the emptiness and silence?  Read anew Mother Teresa’s words, hearing them as an echo of the suffering in this world…   “For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

So I ask you now…what are we going to do about it?

Rabbi Andrea Berlin is Director Congregational Networks – West District with the Union for Reform Judaism and is the co-director of NCRCR.

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Machzor Blog: To Sin or Not to Sin

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The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR Machzor, have thought long and hard about the Hebrew word chet — often rendered as “sin” in English translations of the Machzor.  During the piloting process, some respondents have wondered if the editors’ intention is to eliminate from the Machzor the word ‘sin.’ We have chosen to take a more nuanced approach.

First, it is important to note that the word ‘sin’ does in fact appear multiple times in Mishkan HaNefesh. For example:

In the Erev Yom Kippur service, it appears on p.41b, several times on p.46b, (“it transforms one’s deliberate sins into merits”; “the years of sin are transformed…”; “propel the sinner toward God. Sin is not to be forgotten…” etc.); several times on p.48b (“We sin against You…”; “Who shall say…I have not sinned?”; “Our sins are an alphabet of woe”), p.55a (“Forgive my sin, no matter how great”) and p.65b (“the day when God helps us and forgives our sins”).

In the Yom Kippur morning service, it appears on p.5 (“cleansed of their sins”), p.15 (“Be your sins like crimson…”), p.22 (“must specify the sin”). p.23 (“have tasted sin”), p.25 (“humans inevitably fail or sin”), p.156 [the Viddui – “You have fallen because of your sin”), p.157 (“I admit my sin”), p.160 (“claiming to be free of sin”), p.161 (“a willingness to recognize one’s own sins”; “the isolation of sin”; “the sins are listed alphabetically”; “Everyone confesses all the sins”); p.169 (“For the sin we  committed against You…”); and “p.170 (“we stand together…to confess our sins”).

In the Yom Kippur Mincha service, it appears on p.7 (“to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins”); p.16b (“You will hurl all our sins…”); p.36a (“the sinner”; “sin, remorse, retribution”; “desisting from sin”, etc.); p.36b (“sinfulness,” “the sin of another”); and p.51b (“We sin against You…”; “Who shall say…I have not sinned?”; “Our sins are an alphabet of woe”).

We haven’t yet completed the draft services for Avodah, Eleh Ezkerah and Neilah, but it is likely that the word “sin” will continue to appear as our work goes forward.

The more important question, from our perspective, is whether the word “sin” is always appropriate to describe the various misdeeds enumerated in the Machzor. For example, look at the Al Chet in Erev Yom Kippur (p.47a), and ask yourself if all (or any) of the acts listed there are, in fact, sins. They include “insincere promises,” “speaking foolishness,” “empty talk,” “acts committed through our routine conversations,” “insincere apologies,” and “thoughtlessness.” Or look at p.50a in the Yom Kippur Mincha service, where acts listed in the Al Chet include: “a selfish or petty spirit,” “stubbornness,” “cynicism,” “unworthy thoughts and ruminations,” “offensive speech,” “taking advantage of others,” “through eating and drinking, ” and “losing self-control.”

The dictionary defines “sin” as “deliberate disobedience of God’s will; transgression of a religious or moral law; something regarded as shameful, highly reprehensible or utterly wrong.”  We would characterize certain acts as sinful, such as murder, rape, child abuse, betrayal, deliberate cruelty, and, under some circumstances, adultery and theft, but others, it seems to us, are better described by other English words. We are fortunate, as English speakers, to have at our disposal a language far richer in vocabulary and semantic variation than the Hebrew of the prayer book.

Mishkan HaNefesh attempts to capture many shades of meaning in a nuanced way by using a large variety of words to translate the three primary Hebrew words for wrongdoing (chet, pesha, avon). We do not believe, as some have suggested, that we are minimizing the severity of wrongdoing or portraying all wrongdoing in a therapeutic light. Note that the words we use to capture these different shades of meaning include “evil,” “wickedness,” “depravity,” “crimes,” “brute power,” “malevolence,” “guilt,” “shame,” “failings,” “offense,” “brokenness,” “immorality,” “destructiveness,” “malice,” “wrongs,” “treachery,” “transgressions,” “mistakes,” “cruelty,” “missed the mark,” “stumbled,” “fallen,” “failure,” “harm,” “misdeeds,” “errors,” “defiant acts,” “inner darkness,” and, of course, “sin.”

In all our work on the Machzor, we remember the tremendous variety of people who will be in our congregations, and the misdeeds they will be remembering. Those engaged in viddui and teshuvah may include sexual compulsives who have betrayed their spouses thousands of times, wife beaters, serial rapists, soldiers who have engaged in torture, embezzlers, addicts and child abusers – but also 13 year olds who have been rude to their parents, teased another child on the playground, made snide remarks behind a teacher’s back or cheated on a test, as well as adults who have inflated their resumes, been inattentive to an elderly aunt, received multiple speeding tickets, pilfered office supplies, neglected a friend with cancer, been ill-tempered with their spouse, failed to get to the gym often enough or paid less than their fair share of temple dues. These are certainly not admirable acts, but we hope you would agree that to describe the full range of human misdeeds by the word “sin” simply empties the word of its meaning.

We hope, in fact, to restore some sense of power to the simple English word “wrong.”  There is a difference between right and wrong, and the Machzor wants us to remember that. So do we.

Rabbi Janet Marder is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.  Rabbi Shelly Marder is the Rabbi at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, CA.   They are both editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.