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General CCAR Machzor News Prayer Rabbis

Machzor Blog: What’s in a Name?

L’chol Machzor, yesh shem…

MHaNefesh webWe finally have a name to call our new Machzor!  Mishkan HaNefesh.  As we turn each year to our prayerbook for the High Holy Days, we want to ensure the name would and could reflect not only its contents but the experience of these days as well.

The title of our Shabbat, Weekly, and Festival Prayerbook, Mishkan T’fila led the way.  The choice, years ago, of “mishkan” captured the desire to move beyond the “gates” into the sanctuary, the inner circle of prayer.  It gave access to the many voices and layers of the liturgical experience and reminded us of the centrality of the communal experience within sacred space, even when that space is a prayer book.

Yet, as we have learned, the prayer book itself cannot guarantee the efficacy of prayer or any worship.  It will take the individual within the context of the community to find meaning and value.  Thus, when what name should be linked with mishkan arose, the idea of hanefesh which connects to one’s inner life and what we call a human being became a fitting complement.

The Editorial Core Group made up of the editors:  Rabbis Eddie Goldberg, Shelly and Janet Marder, and Leon Morris; along with our Cantorial colleague, Evan Kent, as well as Hara Person, Peter Berg and me; unanimously supported by the CCAR Board, sought to capture what these Days of Awe seek:  t’shuvah, celebration, renewal, personal challenge and reflection, reaffirmation of communal connection to the Jewish story, among others.

As the introduction to our High Holiday Prayer Book notes: “We hope that this Machzor will be a “place” where the spiritual lives of individuals and the religious framework of the community meet….The focus of the Days of Awe is the inner life, each person’s sacred core—the divine essence breathed into us, which the Bible calls nefesh (Genesis 2:7).  Jewish tradition gives us tools for helping the nefesh (soul) grow and improve: t’shuvah (repentance) and the work of cheshbon hanefesh (accounting/taking stock of the soul).  Our Machzor guides and celebrates this personal journey of transformation and renewal…” while it also recognizes the profound significance of the communal experience.

It is our desire that within every community and congregation, each nefesh can find him or herself within this Machzor just as we hope this particular Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, will be found within our community and congregations as a means to give voice to our heartfelt aspirations and sacred work we engage in throughout the holiday season.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher is at Temple Israel in Boston, MA, and is the Chair of the Machzor Advisory Group.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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General CCAR Machzor Prayer Rabbis

Machzor Blog: Am I Really This Bad? Am I Really This Good?

Once, while prepping for the High Holy Days at a student pulpit, I had the following conversation with a well-meaning cantorial soloist:IMG_0361

“I want to write a new melody for Unetaneh Tokef,” the soloist began. “It’s such a dirge!”

“Well, actually,” I said. “This prayer is about God sitting on the Throne of Glory, deciding who shall live and who shall die.”

“Oh,” the soloist said. “I guess that’s okay then.”

In that moment I realized, not only the importance of educating our lay-leaders, but also our own reluctance to say or do anything in the synagogue that might drive people further away from Jewish life. This is particularly challenging during the High Holy Days, when we are supposed to be engaged in rigorous self-examination.

Given that the High Holy Days are also that small window in the Jewish calendar when we have our community’s undivided attention, both clergy and laypeople are uncomfortable with the discomfort that the liturgy of the High Holy Days is supposed to arouse. However, I firmly believe that the season of cheshbon hanefesh and the call to teshuva are also part of Judaism’s balanced spiritual diet.

Strangely enough, one of my primary concerns during my involvement in the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh has been limiting the discomfort of a new machzor. Given the steep learning curve my congregants encountered with Mishkan T’filah in weekly Shabbat worship, I am concerned with how they will adjust to a new format when they only use it twice each year. As a member of the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee, I sought out texts that were thought-provoking but also “readable.” Our congregation’s pilot group was vigilant about pointing out sections that were difficult to follow.

However, if our mission is really to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we need to retain some of the spiritual discomfort that is endemic to the Days of Awe, so that we might strike a balance between recognizing our flaws and realizing our potential.

The tension between these two elements is beautifully played out in the Vidui in the new Kol Nidre service. As we recited the short confession, my pilot group noticed the shift from the more abstract, “Some of us kept grudges, were lustful, malicious or narrow-minded,”  (Gates of Repentance p. 269), to the harsher, more specific “We corrupt. We commit crimes. .. We are immoral. We kill” (Mishkan HaNefesh Kol Nidre draft p. 45a). Some worshippers were actually offended by the direct accusation of crimes they did not commit.

“Why does it say, ‘We kill,’” one man said. “I don’t kill!”

Just as jarring was the iyyun (readingencouraging us to praise ourselves al ha-tikkun she-tikanu l’fanecha (for the acts of healing we have done). Set up like the al cheyt, this reading states lists a number of acts of tikkun olam we may have committed in addition to our sins,  “For the healing acts by which we bring You into the world, the acts of repair that make You a living presence in our lives” (p. 49b).

It is a brilliant and beautiful reading, but for us it was just as spiritually troubling as the Al Cheyt. Just as we didn’t like being accused of wrongdoings we had not done, we didn’t want pat ourselves on the back for righteous acts we had failed to do. We felt that the reading should be written in a tense that made it sound aspirational rather than congratulatory. In a way, however, this text also allowed us to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, serving as a reminder of all we may have failed to do on that list!

Engaging with this Machzor in its formative state was an incredible opportunity to think about the messages we need to hear—or are uncomfortable hearing—during the High Holy Day season in order to inspire us to perform teshuva. Both the confessional texts and the congratulatory texts allowed us to ask ourselves the same essential questions: “Am I really this bad?” “Am I really this good?”

It also made me think about the messages my congregants hear from the pulpit. I’m told that rabbis give the same High Holy Day sermon, over and over again. I’ve realized that mine is not “you are good” or “you are bad,” but “you can change.”

Leah Rachel Berkowitz is the Associate Rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

She served on the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee of the Machzor Committee. She blogs at thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com.