Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Falling In Love All Over Again With Mishkan HaNefesh

I want to begin this post by sharing with you that I have a deep and true love of Mishkan HaNefesh.  My congregation used the Reform Movement’s new machzor last year, and as a rabbi and as an individual, I found Mishkan HaNefesh to be inspiring and moving.  On Erev Rosh Hashanah, after months of preparation, I stood on the bimah and led my community through our first service with Mishkan HaNefesh.  I watched as my congregants encountered and appreciated the beauty of our new machzor.  I noticed when they lingered over a prayer that moved them and when they held their books to their chests as they sang words that were so familiar that their books were completely unnecessary.  I could see that their hearts were opening to the words and to the experience of praying with Mishkan HaNefesh, and I knew that even as we lived through the inevitable difficulties that that always accompany the first services with any new prayer book, our community had accepted and embraced the opportunity to create new memories with our new prayer books.

Recently, the CCAR Press released Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor.  Reading the detailed commentary and the essays included in Divrei reminded me just how much I love Mishkan HaNefeshDivrei is meant to be a “midrash on the machzor” and offers both very practical advice for using Mishkan HaNefesh as well as high level insight into the book’s creation.  There are many, many valuable pieces of information included in Divrei that will undoubtedly enhance the experience and understanding of both congregants and clergy.

Mishkan HaNefesh Discussion 07-29-2015 00

Last summer, my congregation was lucky enough to have Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher and director of the CCAR Press, join us for an evening forum about Mishkan HaNefesh.  In a couple of hours, Rabbi Person explained to us how Mishkan HaNefesh had come into being while also introducing us to some of the innovative features of the new machzor.  This program provided us with invaluable insight into our new prayer books, and as I read Divrei, I felt like I was experiencing an expanded version of Rabbi Person’s wonderful class.

While I found the commentaries at the beginning of Divrei to be enlightening, I thought that the behind-the-scenes information in the essays was really fascinating.  I especially enjoyed reading Rabbi Janet R. Marder’s, “Praying in Captivity: Liturgical Innovation in Mishkan HaNefesh,” because she addressed at length my favorite aspect of Mishkan HaNefesh– the beautiful readings and prayers that Rabbi Marder explains are either, “…recovered from the tradition itself… [or] presented in a boldly contemporary idiom.” (p. 72)

bearman 2When I sought feedback after the holidays last year, I heard more about the new readings and prayers than any other aspect of our services.  I heard over and over again from congregants who looked chagrined as they told me, “I loved the readings so much!  Sometimes I wouldn’t follow along with the service because I wanted to stay on a page that really spoke to me.”  When I replied that I thought it was wonderful that they had connected so deeply with the prayer book, they immediately grew animated as they shared exactly which texts had affected them.  More often than not, the readings that grabbed their attention are what Rabbi Marder calls “counter-texts.” (p. 72)  For my congregants and myself, these counter-texts and their relationships to the canonical prayers were and continue to be incredibly powerful.
As I prepared for the High Holy Days last year, I spent hours reading both volumes of Mishkan HaNefesh like novels– approaching each page with a pencil in hand, filling the margins with notes about how I felt about each text, and drawing stars next to my favorite readings (full disclosure- there were a lot of stars). bearman 3

Early on in my preparation, I decided to share my enjoyment of Mishkan HaNefesh through social media.  My posts and tweets helped create a sense of anticipation and excitement in my community and let my congregants know how deeply I connected with our new machzor.

As I prepare for my second High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh, I find myself eagerly anticipating the choice of which prayers and readings I’ll include in this year’s services.  I’m looking forward to incorporating what I have learned from both last year’s High Holy Days as well as the resources included in Divrei as I seek to create and lead meaningful services for my community.  And, when the choices seems too difficult, I’m going to comfort myself with what I think is one of the most important messages in Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh– namely that,…what matters is not ‘mastering’ the book, but rather allowing the book to help us experience transformative, sacred moments.” (p. 2)

Rabbi Rachel Bearman serves Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut.

Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Introducing Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor

Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, newly released by CCAR Press, is a compendium to the new machzor of the Reform Movement, Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe. It is serving as a springboard for entering into the sanctuary of our souls with enthusiasm and helpful insights, exegetical and homiletical material, tips, guideposts, and indexes of poems and of biblical citations.

On the advent of the book’s publication, CCAR Press sat down with the editor, Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, senior rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago and coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, to talk a little bit about the creation, purpose, and content of the new compendium.

Q: Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh serves as a roadmap to the new CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh. What made you want to work on Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh?

A: When I was a young rabbi, there was a book to help me understand Gates of Repentance called Gates of Understanding II, edited by Rabbi Larry Hoffman. I thought someone should write some sort of compendium to explain the background of Mishkan HaNefesh, what I would call a midrash, if you will, or a commentary on the creation of the new machzor. That’s what we were going for. And it wasn’t just me. I invited all of the usual suspects—those who helped create the new machzor—to help make the commentary work.

Q: You refer to Divrei as a “midrash on the machzor.” How would you summarize the purpose of Divrei? In other words, the “why” behind the project?

A: After the High Holy days last year, I remember asking myself, “What do I know now that I wish I’d known before the High Holy Days?” I put everything I’ve learned into Divrei. Another one of the things that Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh does is put into book form what I’ve been sharing about the new machzor with colleagues for a number of years through presentations and conferences. It is like the teacher workbook to help other teachers present a better curriculum with the textbook (Mishkan HaNefesh). It is meant for preparation, as there is a lot more work to do for the High Holy Days besides just buying Mishkan HaNefesh. Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh helps the service leader prepare so that the machzor can be used as a sacred implement in the larger presentation of the High Holy Day experience. Divrei Image

Divrei answers the question, “Where did that come from?” The reader will find insights into the changes we’ve made to the traditional text, such as why we changed a word or two and why it’s important. We also want rabbis and cantors to know that we changed a word or two to make sure that they’re on the same page. It will make time spent preparing more efficient, and I think it will also give them answers to questions that, frankly, they may not even know to ask yet.

There are a number of innovations in Mishkan HaNefesh that we talk about in Divrei,  including the additional Torah portions that we’ve included that have never been included in a High Holy Day prayerbook and why, and also some ideas for how one might write a sermon about that. There are certainly things that we couldn’t include in the actual machzor. So Divrei is a bridge to the machzor that helps people plan and execute their worship services and experiences.

Q: Divrei is split into three parts: Commentary, Essays, and Indexes and Tables. What is different about the content of Divrei versus the content of Mishkan HaNefesh?

A: When it comes to Divrei, one thing that’s very important to understand is that it is not full of commentary on the machzor or the High Holy Days because Mishkan HaNefesh itself has a lot of commentary in it. The point was not to create another book that models or reflects that, but to create additional material. I use an ancient commentator– Rashi’s explanation, what he included in his commentary on the Bible: “I am only adding what cries out, what cries out, ‘Explain me.’”

The book isn’t very long because we’re not trying to recreate the wheel. The first part of the book includes commentary that does not already appear in Mishkan HaNefesh. If something is already in the machzor, it is not repeated. The second part of the book includes more in-depth essays by myself and the other editors who were involved in the creation of the machzor so that one can gain a little more in-depth understanding of what the book is trying to accomplish. And there’s an amazing section at the end with all sorts of indexes that will really help people who need to find something in the machzor very quickly, in addition to giving them a lot more technical insight.

Q: This book is full of information pertaining to the new machzor, including background information concerning the perspective and choices of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, as well as extra material that isn’t found in the machzor. Who is the intended audience of this book?

A: Divrei Mishakn HaNefesh can be for anyone who wants to learn more about the High Holy Days. It can be for anyone who wants to learn more about Mishkan HaNefesh. It’s not only for the people who will be “driving the experience,” the rabbis and cantors and other people who will be leading the worship, but for anyone who will use the new prayerbook and wants to enhance their understanding of the High Holy Days.

View the Table of Contents

Read more about Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor

Order Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh

Edwin Goldberg, DHL, is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, editor of Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, and coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Theological Dialectics: Balancing Competing Values in Mishkan HaNefesh

Creating a new prayer book requires managing competing priorities. Should translations reflect the literal meaning of the Hebrew, or evoke its more poetic and idiomatic features? Should the historic machzor text take priority, or should newer voices enter the conversation? Should the liturgy emphasize personal transformation, or communal complicity?

These questions capture the essential challenge of dialectics: balancing competing values in pursuit of progress. Consider tradition and innovation, the quintessential question of Reform Judaism. These values are not mutually exclusive; rather, they co-exist in dynamic tension. It’s like steering a canoe: if you only paddle on one side, you’ll just go in circles. Only by alternating strokes on both sides will the boat move forward. Similarly, dialectics requires thoughtful attention to a small universe of values.  To paraphrase Hegel, it is by interrogating — but not necessarily resolving — apparent contradictions in values that we can arrive at a higher truth.

The editorial team of Mishkan HaNefesh confronted this small universe of values at every step throughout its seven-year process. The ultimate goal? To guide each worshipper along the path to t’shuvah and to invite the community into a space of sacred transformation.

That is easier said than done. It is easy to get lost in the machzor’s wealth of content and creative possibilities. It can be difficult to even know where to begin! Recently I started reading the forthcoming Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. It is a sort of “midrash on the machzor,” a guidebook for community leaders and sh’lichei tzibbur, and it is incredibly usefuI. I love this book because it opens a window into the editorial process. It explains decisions and indexes content in a way that contextualizes this vast project, making it much more accessible. I may not personally agree with every decision, but understanding its grounding philosophies will allow me to use the new machzor more skillfully. In particular, its editorial essays suggest myriad ways the machzor can serve as an invitation into some of Judaism’s most worthy conversations.

And that brings me back to dialectics. Consider the ‘right side/left side’ layout, which, according to the editorial vision statement, “encourages diversity, choice, and inclusion of many ‘voices’; the use of counter-text; and a stimulating balance of keva and kavanah.” Those familiar with Mishkan Tefilah will recognize the format immediately, but the machzor takes the philosophy even further by including many surprisingly subversive texts opposite the more traditional versions.

The most dramatic example is the depiction of God. The God of the High Holy Day liturgy can seem distant and punishing; even terrifying. But that is not the whole story. Avinu Malkeinu, a sort of anthem of the High Holy Days, voices the dialectical dilemma of divinity. Even when we speak in hierarchical terms, we conceive of God as both a sovereign and a parent. Both roles evoke accountability and intimidation in their power differential, but they also draw a contrast: the political ruler is distant and largely theoretical. The parent is intimate; a bedrock of our immediate reality. But we hope that both will exercise compassion and patience even though they must govern and discipline. If these concepts all inhere in one terse phrase from our liturgy, how much more nuanced are the many Jewish conceptions of God! By inhabiting the richly-layered world of Jewish dialectics, Mishkan HaNefesh presents a challenging and complex theological atlas. In subsequent entries of Ravblog I will examine a few specific ways the editors approached their work, highlighting their own words from Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. Ultimately, wrestling with these values both honors our multi-vocal tradition and opens doors that many in our communities might otherwise find locked and barred.

Order Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh

Danny is a CCAR rabbinical intern and a rising fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR.

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Our Most Meaningful Yizkor Service, Ever

For us at The Temple in Atlanta, Mishkan HaNefesh provided us the perfect opportunity to utilize our current practices alongside the most innovative, thoughtful, and moving prayers and poems in the entire machzor.

While some have chosen to read the Seven Lights of Yizkor (beginning on page 536) metaphorically, we choose to actually light seven candles. This new ritual dramatically added to the power of the service. Seven members of our clergy each led one of the candle lightings. (This can easily be adapted for lay leadership). Each section contained an introductory reading, a musical selection, and then a few moments for personal reflection (see page 554). We actually read the reflection questions in each session out loud and allowed a few moments for silence. Finally, a member of the clergy recited the chatimah and then lit the candle.

We deliberately chose some readings from a wide spectrum – emotional, academic, helpful, challenging, and provocative. Each year, we will refine the chosen readings to reflect the year that has passed and the mood we hope to achieve. Some of the most evocative readings included:

  • This is the Hour of Memory (page 541) to open the service
  • The Echo of Your Promise (page 561) based on Psalm 77
  • May God Remember (a two page spread with the relationships we remember at Yizkor)
  • Forgiveness And The Afterlife (page 581)
  • Father (page 589)
  • One Morning Shortly After My Mother Died (page 592)

We invite you to see the yizkor service outline we used.

Additionally, there are certain customs we have established over the years that blended perfectly with the new liturgy:

  1. Members of our High School Girls’ Yizkor Choir sing two selections each year. After a rabbinic meditation on looking at our memorial booklet to view the names of those who passed away this year, the choir sang the poignant words of Take My Name by Juliet Spitzer.
  2. After the seventh candle, members of our Yizkor Choir recited 18 remembrances (Tapestry of Memories) from congregational eulogies spanning Yom Kippur 5775 to 5776. The selections were carefully chosen by the Rabbis and provided the most emotionally powerful moment of the service.
  3. Immediately after the eulogy selections, the Yizkor Choir sang “For Good” (from Wicked with some of the text changed to accommodate the sacredness of the moment). At the end of the first chorus, the singing stopped, but the piano continued to play softly. The rabbis then read the names of our members who passed away since last Yom Kippur. With the recitation of the last name, the choir resumed the text and concluded the composition.

Mishkan HaNefesh Cover Picture (Light) 10_14_2014The feedback we received from the congregation was extraordinary. Hundreds of members went back to view the service – again – from the livestream feed on our website. I am grateful to the CCAR for the gift of this machzor as a tool to enhance what is arguably the most important 60 minute liturgical experience of the entire year. This hour was, without question, our most significant Yizkor service, ever!

Rabbi Peter S. Berg is senior rabbi at The Temple, Atlanta GA.

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Taking Mishkan HaNefesh Off the Page and Into Our Hearts

As we prepared to lead Yizkor from Mishkan HaNefesh we were challenged with how to make a large space feel intimate.  Our High Holiday services take place at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY Purchase, an intimate concert hall that seats 1500 replete with a stage large enough for any philharmonic orchestra.  Our plan was to use the ritual of the seven candles as outlined in Mishkan HaNefesh but in such a large space, we were concerned that the significance of these candles may lose its meaning for those sitting in the upper balcony.

Two things serendipitously came together.  The first is a page in Mishkan HaNefesh that is set apart from the others.  In the midst of the Yizkor service one finds a two-page spread that is different in color, whose words simply say, “Yizkor Elohim” and then a variety of words, randomly spaced (although nothing in Mishkan HaNefesh appears random) across the page describing different relations and the emotions one might feel having them gone.  Verbs like, “I miss…  I remember… I think of…I mourn… i promise,” and relations like, “my mother… my father… my uncle… my friend… my companion.”  Amidst the plethora of amazing readings and poems, I personally find it to be one of the most powerful set of pages in the entire set.  I wanted our congregants to be able to spend some time meditating on those pages.

The second “aha” moment was a Facebook posting (thanks CCAR Facebook page) of Rosh HaShanah services at Denise Eger’s congregation in Los Angeles.  Student Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel led a rousing noggin with everyone standing and dancing and clapping.  Up, above all those on the bima, projected on a screen was a piece of the artwork found in Mishkan HaNefesh.  “This is how we are going to bring that page from the Yizkor services to our congregants!” I thought.yizkor

I quickly sent an email to Hara Person and Dan Medwin asking how we could get a jpeg or PDF of those pages from the Yizkor service to project on our large stage.  For years we have projected the stained glass windows from our sanctuary on the scrim behind our portable aron kodesh.  Now was an opportunity to transform that moment of worship.

During the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Dan and Hara quickly sent us a JPEG of that page.  Our projectionist jumped on it, transforming a static JPEG into move-able text where one word appeared, then another and another.  He also played with the background colors to a project a reddish hue, bringing it more in-line with the coloring of the concert hall.  In this small (albeit complicated by my standards) act, we were able to move Mishkan HaNefesh off the page and into people’s hearts.  I have no idea how others felt about it (no one complained which I take as a compliment).  It was for me, one of the most moving moments of our chagim.

So once again, hats off to the editorial team of Mishkan HaNefesh for their creativity in worship and to our staff at the CCAR for being agents instead of gatekeepers, of saying yes when they could have said no, and for being so responsive to one rabbi’s request.


Rabbi Daniel Gropper serves the Community Synagogue of Rye, New York. 

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

What Should a Prayer Book Look Like?

I grew up using a Holy Day prayer book called The Union Prayer Book II, Revised Edition. It was small, black, and either dull or appropriately understated in appearance, depending on your perspective. Even its name was remarkably prosaic. It didn’t tell you that it was a High Holy Day prayer book, only that it was the other prayer book, the UPB I being the edition for Shabbat.

If it’s what you grow up with, it is what you think is right, the way things should be. The English was a bit flowery, there wasn’t a lot of Hebrew, and it included instructions to the congregation of when to stand and when to sit, like stage directions in a script.

Holding a new prayer book in your hands is a revelation. After years of reading out of the same book, it starts to feel like an old friend. We encounter the new prayer book and think, “Are prayer books supposed to/allowed to look like that?”

Prayer books are a snapshot of the Jewish community: its theology, its social dynamics, its aesthetics; each prayer book is a portrait of our people in a different place and time. None are the same, because we, as a people, are an evolving religious community.

Sometimes we forget that prayer books themselves were once an innovation. There were no prayer books before the Middle Ages. In the early rabbinic period, there was much greater fluidity and spontaneity in the language of prayer than we have today. Prayer books helped to freeze the language of prayer.

The printing press changed everything. Jews were among the best customers of these new printed books, and by the late Middle Ages, Jews everywhere could pray with a book in their hands.

Even today, it is the publisher who decides what goes into a prayer book, and what it should look like. Which brings us to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement, and the aesthetics of Mishkan Hanefesh.

The first thing you will notice is that Mishkan Hanefesh is not one prayer book, it is two. The Rosh Hashanah book has a gold cover, and the Yom Kippur book has a silver cover. I think the gold represents the theme of God’s sovereignty, which is reaffirmed on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world. Silver suggests the white of Yom Kippur, the cleansing of sins, the purification of the soul.

Inside, the pages themselves are set off by colors. Traditional texts and translations appear on white pages, usually on the right side of a two-page spread. Grey pages (on the left side) offer alternative prayers, sometimes creative meditations on the theme of the traditional text, sometimes poetry that speaks to the theme, even “counter-texts” that speak for those who struggle with the traditional text.

Then there are the blue pages, meant for study and reflection. These pages, interspersed throughout the prayer book, invite the worshipper to take detours, to go deeper, to spend time in thought, not in recitation.

Of course, technological advances make all of this possible, but the application of publishing tools is done in a way to invite a more spiritual, and a more flexible experience both for the worshipper and for the worshipping community. No two congregations are likely to have identical experiences with Mishkan Hanefesh, and from year to year, we will find new riches in its pages.

Mishkan Hanefesh has done away with stage directions. Every congregation has its own customs, and the prayer book no longer tells us what to do. That can be unsettling, but also liberating. It empowers us to think about our ritual more consciously.

Finally, Mishkan Hanefesh just looks different. The Hebrew typeface is original, and was created expressly for this Machzor. It is elegant but not ornate; it rests easy on the eyes.

And, then, there is the art work. Yes, this prayer book has art! Clearly, representational art would be a distraction from the deeper themes of prayer. The art is abstract, suggestive, inspired by the prayers it accompanies, but not explicitly interpreting them. That is left up to us. The artist, Joel Shapiro, worked in the medium of woodcuts. You can see the grain of the wood, the rough edges of the cut, the simple primal shapes, all of which direct us back to a confrontation with our own raw self.

Welcome to Mishkan Hanefesh, your new sanctuary of the soul.


Rabbi Larry Milder serves Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, CA.
Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Reform Judaism Torah

How Do You Read This?: The Art in Mishkan HaNefesh

One of the things I remember most distinctly from Freshman English in college was the question, “How do we read this?” Most often, it was applied to a text — a poem or a passage in a novel or essay. At times, however, the question was directed to a visual image. We would study a piece of art, or a photo from a newspaper, and “read” it. The professor was teaching us to be readers of signs, symbols, and visual imagery, pushing us to analyze the world around us and not just the written word. His goal was to enable us to become nimble critical thinkers, able to explore, probe, and question anything we confronted.

“What do we do with those pictures in the machzor?” is a question I’ve been asked about the art by Joel Shapiro that appears in Mishkan HaNefesh. This question brings me back to Freshman English.

Kol Nidre Shapiro
Art for Kol Nidre by Joel Shapiro

When we read a text, by necessity we bring ourselves to that text. Our reading, our understanding, is a meeting of our particular set of experiences and references, and those of the author. There is a midrash which teaches that the manna which sustained the Israelites while they wandered in the desert tasted different to each person. Just as each person tasted the manna differently, so too does each of us process and understand a text uniquely. Indeed, each time we read a text, we read it differently based on who we are in that moment.

So it is with reading art. More relevant that what the artist meant is what we see. Each of us will have our own understanding of an image. All the various elements that are in a piece of art become part of the language of that art-as-text. The colors, the white space, the border or lack thereof, the texture, the particularities of the wood grain, the density of the ink, the shapes – all of these form the language of each piece of art. And just as with any written text, there is no one right interpretation.

Art is a language – each image creates a new world, a singular and uninhibited space for experience and interaction. Abstract art, like that of Joel Shapiro, may at first glance seem hard to read. It may seem like a completely unfamiliar and incomprehensible foreign language. But the question we must ask is not, “what does it mean,” but rather “what can it mean?”

How do you read the art in Mishkan HaNefesh? Reading art is like reading poetry, only with visual language rather than verbal. Look at the image. What does it evoke? What sense does it tug at in you? Rather than trying to understand what it means, try to read it, that is, try to experience it. Does it feel full or empty? Does is evoke a sense of hope, or sadness, a sense of communality, or a sense of being alone? Does it feel tortured, or twisted? Does it make you think about fear, or courage, or buoyancy? Is there a sense of rootedness or eternality? Does it reach out joyfully into the future or does it feel tentative or grasping? Is it turned back on itself, or does it seem open and inviting? Does it feel like an opening into a new beginning, or perhaps a closing off from the past? Does it feel uncomfortably raw, or breathtakingly beautiful, or both?  Is it sure of itself or perplexing? And then ask, how can these these images be visual translations of the overarching themes of the high holy days? How do these images convey awe? T’shuvah? Forgiveness? Redemption? Chesbon nefesh? Majesty?

Image for Yizkor by Joel Shapiro.
Image for Yizkor by Joel Shapiro.

Start by simply letting yourself read the art. Let yourself experience it. Move beyond the discomfort of not knowing what to do with it, and just look it. Read what the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh thought about the art, and read what Joel Shapiro himself has to say about it,but remember that the artist’s intent is only one part of the experience. What you bring to it is also part of what it “means.” Our prayerbook is full of metaphors and imagery that don’t necessarily make rationale sense, but nonetheless move us and connect us with the divine and with the big questions of life and eternity. Think of the art as visual metaphors that helps move and connect us through a different modality.

Our tradition teaches that the Torah was a combination of black fire and white fire.  The Talmud even discusses the importance of the white space around the black letters, considering the white to be another, albeit hidden, kind of Torah text (Menachot 29a). Both texts are critical to the whole, and elicit different ways of reading.  The art then is like the white space around the written text – it is an invitation to experience the metaphors and imagery of the high holy days using a different kind of language, a different kind of metaphor, perhaps even a different part of our soul.

There is no right way or wrong way to read the art in Mishkan HaNefesh. Just like the beautiful poetry in the machzor, or the challenging sublinear commentary, it is there to enhance our experience of the high holy days.  The art gives us another language with which to engage with the big ideas of these Days of Awe. It may not be a language you’re familiar or comfortable with, but that’s all it is, another language, another way of reading.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press and the Executive Editor of Mishkan HaNefesh. Before attending rabbinic school at HUC-JIR, she received an MA in Fine Arts from NYU/International Center of Photography. 

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We All Have Rivers to Cross: Learning Prayer from our Ancestors

This piece is from a summer sermon series at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, exploring Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor. 

When Roberta began to prepare for her Adult B’nei Mitzvah earlier this year, she felt especially draw to chanting Torah. It was then that her mother reminded her: Roberta’s great-grandfather was a hazzan–a traditional cantor. This powerful link to her roots — spanning time and space — deepened Roberta’s Torah experience all the more so.

This summer, as we encounter Mishkan HaNefesh, our new High Holy Day Machzor, we are posting a weekly question for your response. This week, we asked: From what person or event in Jewish history or in Jewish tradition do you draw inspiration? In other words, what are the lessons you learn from Jews of the past?

In Roberta’s case, a teacher of Jewish ritual who was a relative from her own family touched her. For many, teachers from Jewish history offer connection. We are not alone in our Jewish quest for meaning.

In several of your responses online this week, you reached far into Jewish textual history. One of you was inspired by Abraham and Sarah and the way they welcomed strangers into their home. One of you was moved by bold women in the Torah, such as Miriam, and by courageous women in modern history, such as Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, and Hannah Senesh, who was killed saving Jews in the Holocaust. Responses included admiration for the Torah scholars of Jewish history such as Yochonon Ben Zakkai, Rashi,. And there was admiration for the people who have not made the history books, but have devoted themselves to Jewish identity and Jewish living.

Mindful of the question: “From whom in the Jewish past do we draw inspiration?” consider this text from our new High Holy Day prayerbook, Mishkan Hanefesh. This prayer introduces the Yom Kippur Amidah (p. 198):

In the depths of the night, by the edge of the river,

Jacob was left alone.

In heartfelt longing, in the temple of God,

Channah uttered her prayer alone.

In the barren wilderness, in doubt and despair,

Elijah found God alone.

On the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies,

the High Priest entered alone.

We are bound to one another in myriad ways,

but each soul needs time to itself.

In solitude we meet the solitary One;

silence makes space for the still small voice.

For the Psalmist says: “Deep calls unto deep.”

For the depths of our soul, we seek what is most profound.

Glendasan River, Wicklow Mountains“In the depths of the night, by the edge of the river, Jacob was left alone:” This scene recalls Genesis Chapter 32 when the night before Jacob is to meet his brother Esau, with whom he shares great conflict, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being–perhaps it was with God, with an angel, a man or himself. When we in our lives face conflict, or when we toss and turn with our demons, or when we have rivers to cross, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Jacob that struggle with the divine is sacred.

Next verse: “In heartfelt longing, in the temple of God, Channah uttered her prayer alone:” …In this scene, Channah, in deep despair because she has not been able to conceive a child, prays to God for a child. When the priest sees her lips quietly move, he is so unaccustomed to seeing a woman pray spontaneously, that he mistakes her for a drunk woman. When we in our lives feel devastated and long for a new way to arise from our desperation, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Channah that our cries to God are sacred.

Next verse: “In the barren wilderness, in doubt and despair, Elijah found God alone:” In a dramatic story in the Book of Kings, Elijah sees a powerful wind tear apart the mountain, but God is not in the wind. He sees an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire, but God is not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a still small voice. Elijah encounters God in the still, small voice. When we in our lives feel overwhelmed by the noise, drama and pace of this world, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Elijah that stillness is sacred.

Next verse: “On the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest entered alone:” When the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur, only the High priest could enter the the secret and holy center of the sacred space. When we in our lives feel conflicted between the Jewish calendar and the rest of the world’s schedule — when there’s a school program on Rosh Hashanah or a Pope’s visit that creates obstacles for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat (for instance!), we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from the High Priest that sometimes it is lonely to be a Jew, but also, that our Jewish holy days cannot be rescheduled; they are sacred.

Final verse: “For the Psalmist says: ‘Deep calls unto deep.”: That term deep is the very same word used to describe the primordial depths over which God’s spirit hovered in the creation story. When we in our lives, struggling just to keep pace with the routine, aren’t sure we have the time to focus on the deepest truths of our soul, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from the Psalmist that heeding the call from the depths, is sacred.

When this Mishkan HaNefesh passage turns to our ancestors for lessons about prayers, this particular teaching emphasizes moments of solitude. This passage introduces the Amidah, a series of blessings meant for quiet contemplation. Interesting then, even in such personal moments, to find deep connection to the Jewish people and the Jewish past.

Even with all of this emphasis on solitude, and at this time of solitude, we are not alone. We are a part of the Jewish people and the Jewish story; so we list those on whose shoulders we stand in our spiritual search.

Prayer is hard. We don’t always know the words on the page, if we believe what we are saying, or if the sounds are really just mantras after all. We might not be sure if anyone is listening, or if prayer makes an impact. Yet, we can learn from the spiritual seekers who came before us. We can learn from their uncertainty, their loss for words, their doubts. We learn that there are some things that we share in common:

We have rivers to cross. We have longings for which there are no words. We seek to discover truth in the quiet. We discover the sacred when we interrupt our lives for holy time. We are connected; even when we are alone.

Even with all of this emphasis on solitude, we recall all of those from history who keep us company. Our tradition’s roots span time and space. In our quest for Jewish meaning and prayer, when we seek to connect to that which is greater than ourselves, may we never be alone.

Rabbi Jill Maderer serves Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in Philadelphia, PA.

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

HaBocheir B’shirei Zimra: The Ones Who Choose Song

We cantors had this crazy idea – well, I had this crazy idea: a new machzor deserved new music.  The process of creating a new machzor transformed the conversations about the narrative of the High Holy Days; that conversation should extend to the message and experience of its music as well.  So two years ago, we convened a group of cantorial colleagues to study Mishkah HaNefesh, to delve into its new texts, layouts, and flow of prayer and song.  This was truly an inspired combination of cantors with different backgrounds, experiences and talents; our study and dialogue was of great depth and excitement as we considered our current musical repertoire for the High Holy Days, where we wanted either a new musical expression of a familiar text or deliberating about what we would aspire to have for some brand new text.

The journey has been amazing.  We approached a cohort of composers from the Reform Jewish world, our friends and colleagues who are members of either the American Conference of Cantors or the Guild of Temple Musicians, with a bold invitation – to donate their time and talent to us through the gift of a musical composition to be part of what we hoped would be a ground-breaking anthology of new High Holy Day music.  Their generosity of spirit was overwhelming.  Our committee then proceeded to commission each composer with a text and genre of musical direction, specifically chosen for each composer.  And so, Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh was born, the newest music created by those who are called to express our deepest hopes and aspirations through music, the musical threads of Mishkan HaNefesh.

In the ensuing months, we spent time in dialogue with each composer as their creative juices flowed.  Together, we tweaked and refined each draft of the composition, bringing the text to life through the musical notes and voices; this partnership helped to create the extraordinary musical expression that we envisioned and hoped for.

Fast forward to our recent ACC-GTM convention in Fort Lauderdale – the first copies of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh arrived!  In keeping with the goal of honoring the generous contributions of the composers, the volume also contains short statements from each composer about their musical inspiration for their composition.  We chose to present the entirety of its contents to the convention participants in order for everyone to have a more concrete experience of the music, and enable all of us to determine the ways we would use pieces in our services.

Of course, that presentation required rehearsal and preparation.  What an experience it was, to sing and hear the notes come off the page, springing to life as we began to sing. The resonance of the piano, the soaring voice of each cantor, the blending of choral voices, the rising and expansion of sound and word: we had seen it on paper, heard it in our heads, yet the layers of sound and the diversity of expression were so much more moving than I even anticipated.  As the Editorial Chair of the project, I had the opportunity to write some introductory words to the volume.  Experiencing the music coming to life, I feel even more confident in the hopes I expressed there, that these beautiful musical expressions of our sacred texts will inspire all those who hear them, helping them enter into the Mishkan of prayer in the Days of Awe, with a sense of fulfillment and peace.

Cantor Susan Caro serves Northern Virgina Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia.  She is also the Editorial Chair of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh.

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Sing Unto Adonai A New Song

Shiru l’Adonai Shir Chadash­–Sing unto Adonai a new song. As worship leaders and worshipers, how many times have we heard this charge from psalm 96? It is a wonderful reminder of the interplay between scripture and liturgy, and their fundamental difference. Scripture does not change. Indeed, even the would-be “mistakes” of the Torah are not corrected. Rather, alongside them in our chumashim we see how certain words really should be spelled and/or vocalized. Liturgy on the other hand has long been fluid–ever changing to match the new hopes, desires, frustrations, and morals of humankind’s maturation. Singing to God a new song is to constantly find new ways to express our evolving expression to God. As a result, change in liturgy and the music therein has been constant not only in our movement, but also in other Jewish movements and in other religions generally. As we pray together each week, we attempt to transform ourselves so that we can meet the moral and spiritual challenges each changing day brings.

One exception to this constant, gradual change is the liturgy and music of our High Holy Day worship. Like a massive ship, the services for the Days of Awe carry many more of our congregants, and meet far less frequently than our Shabbat services. While the liturgy and music of the High Holy Days we know today is quite different from that of even 50 years ago, they are still progressing at a much slower pace. Therefore, change to this grand liturgy is more jarring and difficult when it comes, even when that change is long overdue. But as the High Holy Day liturgy helps us make cheshbon nefesh–accounting for our souls–it is of utmost importance to keep these prayers and their musical expression up to date with humanity’s ever changing moral, spiritual and aesthetic requirements.

What could fill cantors and synagogue musicians with more purpose and joy than to literally follow the psalmist’s urge to sing a new song unto God? Shirei Mishkan Hanefesh, the musical companion to our new machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh, attempts to fulfill the monumental task of creating new melodies to express our liturgy during the yamim noraim. Indeed, the beauty of this new music is that it will make more of our liturgy accessible to our congregations. The goal of introducing these new settings, however, is not to replace the older ones, but to live alongside them so that they add to the richness of our prayer. While liturgy changes, scripture’s grounding constancy reminds us that we must walk a careful path between change and tradition. Carefully updated liturgy and music for our High Holy Days bring our penitential prayers fuller expression, but they cannot effectively do so without the same attentiveness to the established prayers and music that have carried us thus far.

Cantor Daniel Mutlu serves Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas.  Cantor Mutlu was also on the editorial committee for Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh.