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Holiday Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

Hallel in a Minor Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Categories
Books Prayer spirituality Torah

A New Amen

The Talmud asks, what is the meaning of the word ‘amen’? Rabbi Ḥanina responds: “It is an acronym of the words: “God, faithful King.”[i] In fact, the first letters of the Hebrew phrase El Melekh ne’eman spell out ‘amen.’[ii]

Perhaps it is time for a new ‘amen,’ an amen of action.

The Talmud asks: Which is preferable, saying a blessing or answering amen? According to Rabbi Yosei, “the reward of the one who answers amen is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing.” But a few lines later, the Gemara notes that Rabbi Yosei’s view is disputed by another teaching. Here, the Talmud leaves the question unresolved. Clearly, however, saying ‘amen’ is a critical part of prayer.[iii]

Another section of the Talmud also discusses the importance of saying amen. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that answering a prayer with a deep and heartfelt ‘amen’ has the power to annul punishment, even traces of idolatry. Reish Lakish says: “One who answers amen with all his strength, opens the gates of the Garden of Eden.”[iv]

Hearing a prayer, it seems, requires a response. Yet we must ask: After major natural disasters, after gun massacres, vehicular slayings and the general rise of hatred, is saying ‘amen’ to a prayer for peace enough to open the gates of Eden?

We are a people of deeds, a people who value the nitty-gritty work of tikkun olam. Our forbearers said ‘Heineini’ – ‘here I am’ – when God called their names. In these times, we need a new ‘amen, an amen of action.

We can start with a new acronym for amen. In Hebrew, amen is spelled ‘aleph,’ ‘mem,’ ‘nun.’ Taking the ‘aleph’ from the first letter of the first word – and the ‘mem’ and ‘nun’ from the first and last letters of the second word – I propose that Ani Muchan, ‘I am ready,’ as the amen that will open the gates of Eden.[v]

We are expected to be God’s partner in perfecting creation. We are expected to use our individual actions and financial blessings to improve the world.

Perhaps our prayers are, in part, a set of questions. Will you work for peace? Will you feed the hungry and cloth the naked? Will you fight injustice and pursue peace?

Ani muchan. I am ready. Thus, ‘amen’ becomes a commitment to take our prayers out of our synagogues and out of our hearts and move them onto the streets and into the world with dedication and love. To answer a prayer with ‘ani muchan’ is to make a pledge that can only be fulfilled when we’re done praying.

Click here to read “To the Streets” by Alden Solovy.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press, now available as an eBook.

CCAR Press has created unique programs for you to host at your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Want to host a Grateful Heart Event? Click for details. Contact us with questions at info@ccarpress.org or (212) 972-3636 x243.

 

[i] Shabbat 119b; Sanhedrin 111a

[ii] The Nehalel Siddurim translates El Melekh ne’eman as ‘God, Loyal Sovereign.”

[iii] Brachot 53b

[iv] Shabbat 119b

[v] Thanks to Asher Arbit for his help with the acronym.

Categories
Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We Stand With Ruth as We Get Ready for Shavuot

Tomorrow, on Sinai, we will affirm the purpose of our freedom from Egypt.
Tomorrow we will remember our history and our values, our mitzvot.
Tomorrow we will stand with Ruth.

We invite you to speak – even in the briefest of ways – to the Ruths of today.
We invite you to use whatever part of this liturgy speaks to you and your community.
We invite you to stand with Ruth.

And if you do, please let us know by clicking here

On this Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. We stand with rabbis and their communities across the continent in calling still for comprehensive immigration reform. Why? Congress has debated reform for far too many years while millions of aspiring Americans remain in the shadows, their lack of legal status barring them from good jobs and rendering school scholarships almost unattainable. We will not give up. Over the past seven weeks, we have counted the days from Egypt to Sinai, and we will not stop counting until all the Ruths have been welcomed home.

And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?

Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).

Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:

I am Ruth.

With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.

We are all Ruth.

I am Naomi.

I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter.

On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.

We are all Naomi.

I am Boaz.

I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.

We are all Boaz.

* * *

On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.

We stand with Boaz who looked into the face of the stranger and accepted responsibility, welcoming Ruth and teaching for the generations the ideal of chesed/loving-kindness, just as his grandfather Nachshon demonstrated action by leading others into the Red Sea.

We stand with Naomi who sought the well-being of others, who defied the example of her husband, Elimelech, a man who fled from his responsibility to others, whose narrow vision, selfishness, and jealousy led to his own demise.

We stand with Ruth who graciously said:

“Your people shall be my people,” who was the immigrant becoming citizen, the outsider becoming insider, whose descendent King David gives us even now a sense of promise.

On this Shavuot, may we be inspired to act with chesed with aspiring Americans, as we stand with Ruth.

Categories
Books Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mishkan T’filah for Children: Do Students in K-2 Need a Different Siddur than Students in Grades 3-5?

This question has been raised by several people and it is a really good question.  When our committee sat down to work on the new siddur Mishkan T’filah for Children we asked ourselves (as good educators do) “What are our goals for this siddur?”  As we explored that question through many discussions we came to the conclusion that we would, in fact, need two siddurim.  That one siddur for grades K-5 would not work well.  The reason is something which we have learned from the Early Childhood Education world.  The following is from the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children).

ccar-mishkantfilah-frontcover-2-children_1“Developmentally appropriate practice, often shortened to DAP, is an approach to teaching grounded in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education. Its framework is designed to promote young children’s optimal learning and development.  DAP involves teachers meeting young children where they are (by stage of development), both as individuals and as part of a group; and helping each child meet challenging and achievable learning goals.”

DAP does not just apply to early childhood education, but to all education.  Simply put, we need to understand where children are developmentally and meet them there if we are going to be successful in engaging and educating them.  This applies to their intellectual, social and SPIRITUAL development.  If you spend time with a 6 year old and then spend time with a 10 year old it does not take long to see that they are in very different places developmentally.  A six year old will be a much more concrete learner while the ten year old is starting to think critically and will ask questions like “Which came first, Adam and Eve or the dinosaurs?”

The amazing comChildrenTalitmittee of rabbis who worked on this siddur quickly came to the conclusion that one siddur would not work for all ages.  Different developmental needs needed to be met by creating two different books.  The book for the younger children, which Michelle Shapiro Abraham did an incredible job creating will reach our youngest children at a level they can understand and connect to.  The book for the older children will have more Hebrew, English readings at a different level and questions which will engage our older thinkers.    The goal was the same for both – to engage children and families in prayer and encourage their spiritual growth.

 

Rabbi Paula Feldstein serves Temple Avodat Sholom in River Edge, NJ

 

 

 

Categories
News Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: A Sin By Any Other Name

11505867Folks out there – colleagues and laypeople alike – feel quite strongly about the use of the word “sin” in the new machzor. Or so it seems from the feedback we’ve heard in the piloting process.  But these strong feelings about the word “sin” fall into two opposite camps.  There are those who object to the English word sin because of its Christian overtones, the sense it carries of permanence and of somehow being stained.  Others suspect that our decision to largely use other words (though not exclusively) such as “wrong” reflects a kind of moral relativism where nothing can be catagorically labeled as, well, a sin.

 The three words that are predominately used in the Torah and in our liturgy are cheyt, avon and pesha.  According to a baraita cited in Tractate Yoma 36b, each of these words refers to a distinct kind of sin.    Cheyt refers to inadvertent sins.  Avon references deliberate sins.  Pesha, the most severe, refers to sins committed as a way of rebelling against God.

 In our Kol Nidre service, these terms are translated in one place as “wrongs,” “act of injustice,” and “moral failures.”

The word most often used throughout the liturgy is cheyt, and the translation utilized by the new machzor most often is “wrong.”  This word seems to address both those who are looking to the machzor to provide clear moral standards, as well as those who fear that the word “sin” doesn’t carry with it the possibility for change.

Here is how the Vidui Rabbah is translated in the Kol Nidre pilot draft, page 47a:

 For the wrong we have done in Your presence by the spoken word,

And for the wrong we have done in Your presence through insincere promises….

 In the draft for Yom Kippur Minchah, we introduced a very different translation of the word cheyt.  Drawing upon the oft-cited etymology of the word as derived from “missing the goal” the pilot draft, page 50a and b, offered this translation:

 For missing the mark in Your presence through a selfish or petty spirit,

And for missing the mark in your presence through stubbornness.

 Maybe it was the absence of a commentary or explanation below the line, but this creative way of translation cheyt was viewed as highly objectionable, and laypeople and rabbis alike told us that this translation simply will not work.

Even the best translation and the most insightful commentary below the line cannot fully unpack the notion of sin, or wrong, or failure.  In the same 300px-Kol_Nidrei-2Talmudic sugya referenced above the Rabbis are bothered by the fact that the order of the three primary words for sin in High Priest’s confession doesn’t make sense in light of their own definitions.  For the Rabbis, the order to sin, in increasing severity, should be cheyt, avon, and pesha.  This therefore should be the correct order of the High Priest’s confession.  But Leviticus 16: 21 prescribes that the sins transferred to the scapegoat by the confession are avon, pesha, and cheyt.  Likewise, in Exodus 34:7 (the verse that forms the basis of our selichot prayers), God is described as nosei avon, va’pesha v’chata…

The Talmud solves the problem in an ingenious way. Rabbah bar Shmuel said in the name of Rav: The halakhah follows the view of the Sages. Moses was saying before the Holy One of Blessing, “Master of the Universe, at a time when Israel sins before you and then repents, transform for them their deliberate sins into inadvertent sins.”

In other words, the order of sins in the Torah comes not to teach us the order of the High Priest’s confession, but rather to teach that repentance has the power to change the order of what we’ve done, to transform even deliberate and rebellious sins into less severe inadvertent sins.

With regard to our translations then, might we say that teshuvah can turn “sin” into “wrong,” or even in to “missing the mark.”

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.