A prayerbook is a repository of rituals and ceremonies; its language is often formulaic and sometimes feels abstract. Yet the rituals contained within the best prayerbooks also speak to our souls: the recurring idioms (for example, “Baruch atah, Adonai . . .”) create a shared spiritual space in which communities gather to affirm their values and beliefs, define their orientation to the world, and try to make sense of life’s vicissitudes. That is, in addition to teaching us the right steps in the right order, a prayerbook worth its salt must be “real.” Its content should touch our hearts — speaking to the lives we live, while aiming to inspire hope and faith and courage.
And so we come to Mishkan HaLev — a book whose name means “A Sanctuary of the Heart” (or “a dwelling place of the heart”). Mishkan HaLev is largely a response — albeit a partial one — to a single question: how do Reform Jews prepare for the High Holy Days? Here is what we learned by asking that question in a CCAR survey several years ago: (1) serious Reform Jews value preparation because they recognize the unique character of these holy days; (2) some Reform Jews have found interesting, creative ways to prepare for the Days of Awe — the season of introspection, repentance, and forgiveness; and (3) many have yet to figure out how to make time for meaningful preparation, but would like to do so. What is the goal of Mishkan HaLev? Its main purpose is to encourage more people to be better prepared, spiritually and emotionally, for the High Holy Days— and we hope that those who pray its prayers, read its poetry, and study its commentary are enriched by the experience.
Mishkan HaLev is comprised of two sections: Shabbat Evening Service for the Month of Elul; and S’lichot: Songs of Forgiveness for the Season of Return. The Shabbat service is intended for all Friday evenings during Elul, the month that leads to Rosh HaShanah; in addition, it includes the liturgical insertions for Shabbat Shuvah — the “Sabbath of Return” between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The S’lichot service is the CCAR’s first new S’lichot liturgy since Gates of Forgiveness was published in 1980. Both services contain many choices for communal worship, study, and discussion, as well as diverse options for private devotion and inspiration — in particular, the “Meditative Amidah” for Friday evening and abundant poetry. Both are designed, as well, to serve as resources for educational programs leading up to the High Holy Days.
Many poems appear in these pages, because, as Edward Hirsch has written, “poetry is a soul-making activity.” At its best, poetry celebrates the gift that allows human beings to see things differently, to remake the world, and to reinterpret received ideas and traditions. Reading a poem can stir within us a sense of intimacy and even urgency.
Why have we called this prayerbook “Mishkan HaLev — A Sanctuary of the Heart”?
Love is the theme of the month of Elul, in part because the initial Hebrew letters of Song of Songs 6:3 — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li) — spell out the word Elul. Our Sages saw the verse as expressing the tender mutual devotion that makes t’shuvah possible. If we turn with open hearts to the Holy One, they taught, God is forever ready to embrace us with love.
No prayerbook can choreograph the turning of our hearts to God and to other people; nor can it possibly choreograph their loving responses to us. Such events are profound and unique; often they are transcendent — moments in which we are transported entirely beyond words, and far beyond the pages of the prayerbook. But it is our hope that Mishkan HaLev will challenge all of us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of such moments in our lives. May this prayerbook help us to make Elul a time of profound introspection, self-examination, and turning.
Rabbi Sheldon Marder is currently the Rabbi and Department Head of Jewish Life at the Jewish Home of San Francisco. Rabbi Marder is the co-editor, translator, writer, and commentator of Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, published by CCAR Press in 2015, as well as the co-editor of Mishkan HaLev: Prayers for S’lichot and the Month of Elul, a companion prayerbook to Mishkan HaNefesh. He is also the contributor to other publications, such as Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, published by CCAR Press in 2016; and CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2013 issue.