The Wonders of Our Past and Future

I often think about the future.  

Of course, that is pretty vague.  I think about tomorrow, weeks ahead, months ahead…and so on.  I also think about the next “Journey.”  Some refer to this as the Afterlife…however, what if it is just one continuous life?  I have read a lot on this subject – I mean, I am a rabbi.  I even teach a class on the Jewish understandings of “Heaven and Hell.”

It makes a lot of sense that we would dwell on our time as a “living biological being” on earth.  After all, it is right in front of us.  We cannot ignore it.  And, we are not really able to comprehend what we do not understand – which of course is everything before and after our time on earth.  

When I think about the future, I try to focus on the positive “what ifs.”  It is not always easy, though, when I consider so many of the terrible things that are present in today’s world including terrorism, natural disasters, mass shootings and the list goes on.  My “inner” Yetzer Tov (my good angel) reminds me of all of the wonderful things – my wife, my beautiful family, my wonderful congregation and so much more.

Times of Wonder

Think back to the first time you smelled a new born baby’s head…what about the first flowers of Spring.  Have you found true love?  Remember how your heart felt when you saw your beloved after an absence?  These are only a few examples of the wonder there is in the world.  

When approaching the end of life, people often will tell me they are not afraid to die.  They are looking forward…why?  Some are looking forward to no longer being in pain while others are excited about the next stage of their lives.  Even those who struggle with God or the Heaven/Hell idea are still sometimes excited about finding out what’s next.  On the other hand, some are afraid of how their families and friends will cope with their passing.

One of the first words a Jewish person utters in the morning is: Modeh Ani L’fanecha, Melech Chai v’Kayam, She’he’chezarta Bi Nishmati, Bechemla, Rabah Emunatecha. “I offer thanks to You, ever living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.”

Every day that we wake up and open our eyes, we should be thankful for the day that is ahead.  Even during our daily struggles, we should look for reasons to be thankful…things to amaze us: the wonders of every day.  This is not always easy.  For many, this is a rather difficult task.  It is, however, a struggle we must work through.  We should find these moments of wonder and hold on to the memories.

Looking Back and then looking forward again

When we think of those who have had indelible imprints on our lives, especially those who have died, should we only remember the wonder?  What about the pain that we feel?  Perhaps we are angry as we do not understand why they are gone.  Perhaps there are also uncomfortable or bad memories that are hard to forget.  I firmly believe that the “bad” experiences and memories are just as important as the “good” ones.

Do not get me wrong.  Sometimes, it is impossible to look past or forget these bad experiences.  And, sometimes these experiences overpower the good ones.  That is ok.  All of the experiences we have in life impact us and help us to become who we are today and in the future.  So, look back and find those memories: the good ones and the “not so good ones.”

You have them?  Ok, now look forward again.  If you do not understand why, that is ok…let these memories help you to move forward.  Do not let them overpower you.  Do not forget them…hold on to them.  Recognize them for what they are.  This may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do.  That is also ok…this is how we move forward.

Let me end this blog with a prayer:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Mi M’vareich et Ha’avar shelanu v’et Ha’atid shelanu.

Blessed are You Adonai, Sovereign of the Universe, who blesses our past and our future.

Rabbi Erin Boxt serves Temple Beth El in Knoxville, TN.  

Books Prayer

A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings

As wildfires burned in California, hundreds of missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza. Fire on the ground and fire from the air, with people I know and love in both places. Just a week before, 12 people were murdered in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. A week before that, the largest-ever U.S. antisemitic massacre was perpetrated at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation, Pittsburgh. All this occurred against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism world-wide and contentious U.S. mid-term elections.

My pen has been grieving, the ink pouring out prayers with titles like these: “Missiles from Gaza,” “As Fires Rage” and “Taharot in Pittsburgh.” In those 2.5 weeks, I wrote a baker’s dozen of ‘responsa prayers,’ dealing with immediate concerns in the wake of news events. Writing ‘responsa prayer’ is one of the roles of a modern liturgist, to give our shared experiences a voice of prayer.

There’s a reason why these pieces resonate. Our prayer book, the siddur, has tuned our ears to the many voices of prayer. We know the voice of grief and the voice of yearning. We know the voice of joy and the voice of hope. We have been praying some of these prayers for more than 1,000 years. The prayers call out to us, as they did to our fathers and mothers.

There can also be a disconnect. While the siddur gives us the spiritual foundation to connect to our inner hearts of blessing, at times the language doesn’t fit.  Another role of a modern Jewish liturgist is to bridge that gap, opening doorways back into the prayer book. The goal is to capture the familiar cadences and themes – and at times the familiar idiom – in a way that is true our current sensibilities and language.

The Reform siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, addresses these opposite forces with a faithful, contemporary translation of Hebrew texts, as well as a broad set of alternative readings on the left-hand page of two-page spreads.

This is the goal of my new book, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings. Structured to reflect the morning service found in Mishkan T’filah, this collection provides a new set of ‘left-hand pages’ to enliven our worship. The prayers in This Joyous Soul invite a deeply personal prayer experience that strengthens our connection to Jewish tradition. It’s written to inspire each of us to make the traditional daily liturgy our own. So, my hope is that it will be used both by individuals as part of their personal prayers and will be adopted for use in congregations throughout the Movement.

For generations, the siddur has given voice to our deepest desires. Every generation has left a mark on this great book that spans centuries, continents and cultures. This Joyous Soul is one contribution to that great endeavor: keeping the prayers of our ancestors vital and alive, with a new voice for these ancient yearnings.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. 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, published by CCAR Press in 2017, and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available for pre-order from CCAR Press and available by Thanksgiving 2018!

High Holy Days Prayer

“Gates” as an Enduring Metaphor

At Neilah, the closing service at the end of Yom Kippur, we imagine ourselves standing at the gates of heaven, urgently pleading for forgiveness until the final second of the day expires and the gates close.

The moment is one of great solemnity. We cry out: “Open a gate for us when the gates are being closed, for the day is about to fade” (Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p640). This is it. A last chance to plead our case.

Each year, surrounded by hundreds of congregants, in the urgency of prayer, I imagine myself standing alone at an ancient stone wall. There are two large wooden gates with iron adornments. One of the gates is already closed, the other slowly closing by an unseen force. They look more like the outer gates of a city than the gates of a castle. My prayer enters through these gates. The day fades. The shofar blows. I haven’t passed through the gates, but I haven’t walked away, either.

In this visualization of the metaphor, there’s a gate for each of us. Each gate is different. It’s the gate created by our own triumphs and our own challenges, our own misdeeds and our own acts of tikkun olam. In this version of the metaphor, each year the gate is different, shaped by our lives over the past 12 months.

We are, in truth, always standing at the gates of heaven. In each moment, we have the chance to build or destroy, to love or to withhold love, to bless or to curse, to be brave or to live in fear. Each moment is both a barrier and a portal.

This is what makes “gates” an enduring metaphor. The metaphor is potent with possibility. It’s a reminder of the challenges ahead.

As the sun fades, as darkness sets in, we pray one final viduii, one last confessional before that closing blast of the shofar. Then it is time to go back into the world, renewed and refreshed with the blessing of forgiveness.

Repentance Inside
This I confess:
I have taken my transgressions with me,
Carrying them year by year into my hours and days,
My lapses of conscience
And indiscretion with words,
My petty judgments
And my vanity,
Clinging to grief and fear, anger and shame,
Clinging to excuses and to old habits.
I’ve felt the light of heaven,
Signs and wonders in my own life,
And still will not surrender to holiness and light.

God of redemption,
With Your loving and guiding hand
Repentance in prayer is easy.
Repentance inside,
Leaving my faults and offenses behind,
Is a struggle.
In Your wisdom You have given me this choice:
To live today as I lived yesterday,
Or to set my life free to love You,
To love Your people,
And to love myself.

God of forgiveness, help me to leave my transgressions behind,
To hear Your voice,
To accept Your guidance,
And to see the miracles in each new day.

Blessed are You,
God of justice and mercy,
You who sets Your people on the road to t’shuvah.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher.  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  (CCAR Press, 2017) and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Repentance Inside is reprinted with permission from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day © 2017 CCAR Press

Books Prayer spirituality

Modern Voice, Ancient Yearning

Contemporary liturgy is a response to the call of the siddur and the call of our hearts.

The siddur carries the weight of history, the wisdom of our ancestors, the yearnings of humanity, the fears and the glories of our existence, and the resounding call of the shofar still beckoning from Sinai. The voices of the bereaved, the exalted, the confused, and the faithful, the voice of exile, the voice of redemption, and the voices of our parents, blend in the siddur’s unshakeable faith in God and the Jewish people.

So, too, our hearts desire modern language to capture our yearnings, ancient yearnings as old as humanity. Instinctively, we seek to pray with a contemporary voice, while understanding that our hearts’ desires are as old as life itself. In our time, some question both faith and history. Many struggle with concepts of God.

The call of the siddur begs for a response. Classic t’filah – the prayers written and redacted by rabbis and scholars in our time and for centuries before – require present-day voices to unpack new meaning from the old verses and to give them renewed power. Jewish prayer is reaffirmed and reestablished in each generation with a dialogue between our siddur and our hearts.

This is one of the goals of Mishkan T’filah, with ‘left-hand’ pages offering alternative readings and interpretations to the classic prayers that appear on the right. Essentially, the prayers in Mishkan T’filah  are in dialogue with themselves, inviting each of us into the conversation. The words of contemporary liturgy sing with the ancient words of prayer.

My forthcoming book – This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings – is the latest addition to that conversation. It is, essentially, a new set of left-hand pages for our siddur.

This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings,now available for pre-order.

This Joyous Soul provides a modern expression to classic prayers: from Birkot Hashachar to the Shema, from Amidah to Aleinu. It’s organized around the weekday morning service. Although it can be used with any prayer book, it’s structured to fit Mishkan T’filah, with many of the section heads matching that volume.

Many of the themes of the weekday morning service recur in the afternoon and evening services, as well as Shabbat and holiday services. So, this volume provides a versatile tool for daily, Shabbat and holiday prayer. Prayers specific to Shabbat and the holy days can also be found in the previously-published companion volume, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day.

This Joyous Soul is a natural follow-up to This Grateful Heart. This Grateful Heart focused on days, times and seasons. Essentially, This Grateful Heart, is about the prayer needs of individuals in their daily lives. While many of the prayers in This Grateful Heart have been incorporated into communal worship by synagogues across North America and the U.K., the focus is on our individual prayer lives.

This Joyous Soul is about the prayer needs of individuals in our communal Jewish lives; in particular, in our worship services. Of course, many of the prayers in This Joyous Soul can be used by individuals in their daily lives, as well.

My hope is that congregations will place copies of This Joyous Soul alongside their regular siddur—in the pews or on the rack of prayer books—either as a supplement to communal worship or for congregants to use in moments of silent contemplation.

Deeper still, I hope that it serves as an invitation for each of us to explore the siddur with fresh eyes, that it opens curiosity – of both clergy and congregant – about the themes and intentions handed down for generations.

Even deeper, I hope that This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings becomes a source of inspiration for you to write your own prayers, for you to actively enter the dialogue between our hearts and our prayers, between our souls and the soul of the siddur, between our voices and the voices of ancient yearnings.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. 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 (CCAR Press, 2017) and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearningsnow available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 


Prayer on Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day

Our God and God of compassion:

In the Jewish Calendar – this day is called Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.

This morning we stand – not merely in prayer – but in remembrance.

We remember the more than 13,000,000 souls destroyed in the nightmare of the Shoah – the Nazi Holocaust. Among those innocents exterminated by the Nazis were:

  • Intellectuals
  • Communists
  • Socialists
  • Catholics
  • The Mentally and Physically infirm
  • Gypsies/Roma
  • Gays and Lesbians
  • And, of course – 6 million Jews – of whom 1.5 million were children.

These numbers are not new.  I have lived with them all of my life.

My mother passed away this past June at the age of 91.  She was born in Leipzig, Germany.  She lived through Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass that took place on November 9th, 1938.  She and her parents were able to escape to America and begin new lives here – but the shadows of that night and the months and years that followed, never disappeared from her consciousness until she suffered a stroke on the day after her 91st birthday. As devastating as that event was in our lives, in some ways it was a blessing since it allowed her to find relief from the fears and anxieties that plagued her all of her life as she confronted the memories of her experiences as a young girl in Nazi Germany.

Today, Jews and people of faith all around the world remember how hatred and bigotry came together with modern technology to create a machinery of death that had never before been witnessed in human history.

Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen Belzen, Dachau, Treblinka – these  and so many other names are forever etched into our consciousness – these places of pure evil that taught  the depths to which human beings will descend in order to deny the Divine Image implanted within each of us….

In trying to understand the enormity of evil represented by the dark period of the Shoah we must accept the fact that in some cases there can be no understanding.  To state that one and a half million children died for a reason is blasphemy.  In a world where we strive to see God’s presence, the reality of evil can eclipse even the brightest flame of holiness.

Our task, in remembering those precious souls who perished, must be to strengthen our resolve to call out and combat evil wherever and whenever it arises. When we are silent, we are complicit.

Elie Weisel – the great writer and teacher wrote:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

When we turn our backs to the ugliness in our world – we are desecrating God’s presence in our midst.  Let us remember that with the holiness implanted within us comes the responsibility to shine a light on both good and evil – wherever it may find itself.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO. This prayer was originally posted here and read for the Colorado House of Representatives.

Gun Control Healing Prayer

Prayer in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this tragic day when we confront the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets.
Our prayers have changed nothing.
Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to guns has squinted through the sights of a weapon, aimed, squeezed a trigger and taken out his depraved anger, pain and frustration on innocents:  pure souls. Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers- cut down in an instant by the power of hatred and technology.
We are guilty, O God.
We are guilty of inaction.
We are guilty of complacency.
We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.
The blood of our children cries out from the ground.
The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.
I do not appeal to You on this terrible morning to change us. We can only do that ourselves.
Our enemies do not come only from far away places.
The monsters we fear live among us.
May those in this room who have the power to to make change find the courage to seek a pathway to sanity and hope.
May we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.

Only then will our prayers be worthy of an answer.

Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  This prayer was originally posted on his blog

My Mind Roars in Turmoil

My mind roars in turmoil.
Far away from my kitchen table, sit parents weeping at their own
struggling with the unimaginable
So unspeakable, we grasp our children’s popsicled hands before we cross benign streets
And hold our breath – just a little bit – every time they jump from the couch
When they are small

Everything feels so close.

It is all mixed with my own fear
Because I courageously kissed my kindergartener and first grader before they entered in their classrooms.
Because my twins’ preschool is an open classroom kind of place and not a fortress of childhood.

They say in times of trouble, our people turn to the Psalms.
So I went through them all
and cherry picked a few for you.
In the hopes of helping you
Mostly because I feel so helpless myself.

On the depths of grief:
I am all bent and bowed;
I walk about in gloom all day long.
For my sinews are full of fever;
There is no soundness in my flesh.
I am all benumbed and crushed;
I roar because of the turmoil in my mind.
– Psalm 38:7-9

I am weary with groaning;
Every night I drench my bed
I melt my couch in tears.
My eyes are wasted by vexation,
Worn out because of all of my [distress].
Away from me, all you evildoers,
For Adonai heeds the sound of my weeping
Adonai hears my plea
Adonai accepts my prayer.
– Psalm 6:7-10

Have mercy on me, O Adonai,
For I am in distress;
My eyes are wasted by vexation
My substance and body too.
My life is spent in sorrow,
My years in groaning;
My strength fails…
My limbs waste away.
– Psalm 31:10-11

On feeling abandoned by God:
How long, O Adonai; will You ignore me for forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind,
grief in my heart all day?
– Psalm 13:2-3

My God, my God
Why have You abandoned me;
Why so far from delivering me
And from my anguished roaring?
My God
I cry by day – You answer not;
By night, and have no respite.
– Psalm 22:2-3

On being angry about this tragedy:
I was very still
While my pain was intense.
My mind was in a rage,
My thoughts were all aflame;
I spoke out:
Tell me, O Adonai, what my term is,
What is the measure of my days;
I would know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life just handbreadths long;
Its span is nothing in Your sight;
No man endures any longer than a breath.
– Pslam 39:3-6

On the magnitude of this loss:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
The sky proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
Night to night speaks out.
There is no utterance, there are no words, whose sound goes unheard.
Their voice carries throughout the earth
Their words to the end of the word.
– Psalm 19:2-5, so too the words and actions of those we lost on Wednesday….

On the capriciousness of this loss:
Many, his days are like those of grass;
He blooms like a flower of the field;
A wind passes by and it is no more.
– Psalm 103:15-16

Prayer for safety:
May Adonai answer you in time of trouble,
The name of Jacob’s god keep you safe.
May God send you help from the sanctuary
And sustain you from Zion.
– Psalm 20:2-3

Prayers for the ability to find comfort:
Hear, O Adonai, when I cry aloud;
Have mercy on me, answer me.
On Your behalf my heart says
“Seek My face!”
O Adonai, I seek Your face.
Do not hide Your face from me…
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God, my deliverer.
– Psalm 27:7-10

O Adonai, I call to You;
My rock, do not disregard me…
Listen to my plea for mercy
When I cry out to You
When I lift my hands
Towards Your inner sanctuary…
– Psalm 28:1-2

O Adonai, hear my prayer;
Let my cry come before You.
Do not hide Your face from me
In my time of trouble;
Turn Your ear to me;
When I cry, answer me speedily
– Psalm 102:2-3

A song of ascents:
Out of the depths I call to You, Adonai
O Adonai, listen to my cry;
– Psalm 130: 1

Prayers for comfort:
Psalm 23

Turn to me, have mercy on me,
For I am alone and afflicted.
My deep distress increases;
Deliver me from my straits.
Look at my affliction and suffering,
And forgive all my sins…
Protect me and save me;
Let me not be disappointed,
For I have sought refuge in You.
May integrity and uprightness watch over me,
For I look to You.
O God, redeem Israel
From all its distress.
– Psalm 25:16-22

Hear my cry, O God,
Heed my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to You;
When my heart is faint
– Psalm 61:2-3

Adonai is close the the brokenhearted. – Psalm 34:19(a)

On memory and loss:
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat
Sat and wept
And remembered Zion
– Psalm 137:1, for what is Zion, if not the place before tragedy

Perhaps a little too “on the nose”
Rescue me, O Adonai, from evil men;
Save me from the lawless,
Whose minds are full of evil schemes,
Who plot war every day.
– Psalm 140:2-3

My favorite prayer:
May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart
be acceptable to You
O Adonai, my rock and my redeemer
– Psalm 19:15

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Books Healing News Prayer spirituality

A Prayer of Gratitude from URJ Biennial 2017

Take a moment to be fully grateful for just one thing in your life. That little pause may be enough to change your outlook and your attitude for the day.

At the URJ Biennial, CCAR Press offered that opportunity with a set of stickers and a poster board featuring the book, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. Each of the stickers read ‘I’m grateful for…’ and folks who came by the booth could complete that line and add the sticker to the poster. Adults and kids, rabbis and cantors, educators, congregants, and lay leaders joined in. By the end of the convention, the board was covered with individual prayers of gratitude.

Gratitude for family and the Biennial appeared most often. One of my favorites came from a little girl who dictated her gratitude to her mother: “being fancy.” I got a chuckle reading “my puppy (woof).”

This is a prayer based on those stickers. I added the language in italics – as well as the punctuation and a few of my own gratitudes – and arranged the order. The words of the prayer are taken from the stickers written by Biennial attendees.

Biennial Sticker Prayer of Gratitude

We are grateful for so much,
All the gifts this world offers.
We celebrate:
The URJ, the CCAR and our congregations,
Biennial, the people, the music and the ruach,
The chance to learn and share,
Being a college ambassador
And singing in the Biennial choir.

I give thanks for:
My family,
My wonderful husband, my wonderful wife,
My children, my grandchildren,
My sons, my daughters,
Nephews and nieces,
Mom and dad,
Sisters and brothers,
My amazing boyfriend,
My fantastic girlfriend,
Thoughtful work friends,
My dog, my puppy (woof) and my cat,
My house, bed and toys,
Best friends and conversations,
Being who I am,
My camp, my nanny and my students,
Jewish music and my guitar,

We marvel at the gifts of:
Dreams, spirit and creativity,
Opportunities, expected and unexpected,
Personal passions,
Good health and sleep,
The ability to grateful,
The ability to forgive,
Second chances and
Guardian angels,
Good food and better company,
Water, hugs and coffee,
Doctors, medicines and helping hands,
Torah and Israel,
Books, puns, words and being fancy.

Today, Source of love and light,
We are grateful for
Every. Single. Thing.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. His teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud, UK, and synagogues throughout the U.S. 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, published by CCAR Press in 2017.

Books Prayer spirituality

Delve Deeper into the Siddur

Upon three things, our tradition says, the world stands:  upon Torah, upon worship, and upon acts of loving-kindness. Of the three, worship is often the most challenging, least accessible component of Judaism today.

Worship is all about our yearning for transcendence:  it attempts to both express and address the inexpressible—to commune with the Ultimate—through poetic speech, music and gesture.  It is about giving voice to our human-all-too-human needs, fears, and hopes; about reaching in, reaching out, and reaching up from the depths of our beings; about enacting community and, through collective ritual performance, energizing our commitments to our ideals and to bettering our world.

Prayer as a form of address can be difficult if we have doubts about the addressee of our prayers (God? To whom it may concern?), but prayer as a deep and even spontaneous response to our human situation—to its needs and vulnerabilities—may be easier to access since, when we are honest with ourselves, we are all needy and vulnerable.  Those same concerns and human realities are expressed in our historical Jewish liturgy, although it may sometimes be difficult to connect the private stirrings of our hearts with the public words on the page.  This book attempts to make that connection easier, at least cognitively, by showing how the words on the page did not come down to us full-blown in every minute detail from Sinai, but were composed by human beings and elaborated in response to the changing needs and situations of Jewish communities over time. This observation pertains both to the traditional prayers and to their modern, Reform adaptations and paraphrases, for in this sense, all liturgy is creative liturgy.

In every generation, in every place, we struggle with both universal human questions and particular issues rooted in our specific cultural and physical space. Our prayers have always been adapted to unique human moments and hold the tension between the authenticity of tradition rooted in our history and the our changing situations.

Ten years ago, Mishkan T’filah was published as the most recent contribution of the North American Reform movement to this ongoing dialectical process.  A survey of Reform congregants indicated, among other things, that, when it came to role of a prayer book in communal worship, they wanted to understand what they were saying in Hebrew – particularly now that so much of the traditional Hebrew text has been restored in Reform worship. They also wanted to understand the logic of the liturgy itself: the structure, historical-contextual background, and meanings of the various services and the individual prayers. How can the prayers on the page become the prayers of the heart? How can the historical prayers of the community become also my personal prayers?

A first step in that process is iyun t’filah – contemplation, study, and learning about those prayers of the community – and how they might be personally internalized, even when that requires some interpretation. To supplement and provide some context to these Jewish prayers, the Reform Movement’s Commission on Worship, Music, and Religious Living, on which I sit, generated a series of essays about the prayers that were distributed once a week between May, 2008 and January 2013 in the URJ’s daily “Ten Minutes of Torah” e-mail blasts.  I wrote the pieces that dealt with the development, structure, and historical meanings of the prayers, including their various Reform adaptations.  Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur is an updated, revised, and enlarged compilation of those pieces.

Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur is not a spiritual-religious meditation and commentary on the prayers.  Some of that kind of reflection can be found at the bottom of each page of Mishkan T’filah and in a number of other contemporary books on Jewish prayer and worship.  Instead, this book is an accessible account of the historical development of the prayers and the ideas behind them, in both their traditional and Reform contexts (including the variety of ways they have been adapted and paraphrased in major Reform prayer books over the past two centuries). Understanding how our prayers originated and have been adapted over time in different contexts gives us a deeper appreciation of where we have been as a people. My hope is that this understanding will also contribute to readers’ greater personal connection and eventually to a sense of ownership, as we bring our own experiences to the mix.

My own connection to Jewish liturgy, ritual and music was sparked early, though my experiences at Temple Emanu-El in suburban Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s, singing in children’s and adolescent choirs at Shabbat and festival services and learning Hebrew liturgy through the variety of its musical expressions. This continued throughout my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, during which I also studied in Israel for the first time, and then in rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, where I studied Jewish liturgy with Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski, who had a deep appreciation for liturgical aesthetics. The expressiveness and emotional quality of Jewish prayer—both Hebrew text and music—were impressed upon me through all of those experiences, and remain essential to both my teaching and worship leadership today.  Compiling Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur, and writing the individual pieces that it brings together, was a labor of love for me.  I hope that love and enthusiasm are conveyed in the book itself and will inspire readers to connect—to delve yet deeper into the Siddur and to explore what the many facets of Jewish worship might mean to them.

Rabbi Richard S. Sarason is Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought, and The Deutsch Family Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, OH, where he has been a faculty member since 1979. He is also the author of Divrei Mishkan T’filah: Delving into the Siddur, a commentary on Mishkan T’filah from CCAR Press.


Books Gun Control Prayer Social Justice

The Relevance of Prayer in the Face of Tragedy

The morning after the Las Vegas Massacre, several identical posts appeared on Facebook, many from rabbis, declaring that ‘Prayer is not enough.’ As I was reading them, I received a note in my message box from a long-time anti-gun activist. She asked: “Do you have a prayer to help give us energy and hope as we fight this battle?”

The contrast was stark. Faith leaders were deriding the importance of prayer while an anti-gun activist – crushed with the enormity of the work ahead – turned to prayer for hope and inspiration.

Clergy said it after the Las Vegas massacre. Clergy said it after the Pulse Massacre. Clergy said it after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. After each horrific tragedy – natural or not – a handful of Jewish clergy said: “Prayer is not enough.”

Yes, prayer must be accompanied by action. Tikun olam comes from our involvement in bettering the world. Yet as a liturgist and pray-er, someone who works every day to help people connect to prayer, I worry that stating that ‘prayer is not enough’ minimizes the importance and the impact of prayer. It perpetuates a simplistic understanding of prayer.

What I want to say to my beloved rabbis is this: Be brave in demanding action. Be direct. Tell your congregants this: Get up out of your seats, do something that will make a difference. But in the process, don’t intimate that prayer is irrelevant.

Prayer can give strength to activists. Prayer can remind us of our best selves, helping to galvanize action. It can comfort the wounded and the newly bereaved. Prayer can remind us – when the moment of tragedy has passed – to continue our work. Prayer can unite faith leaders and political leaders with one voice.

Prayer helps us bury the dead and provide solace to their kin. Prayer gives our grief a voice and that voice should be a call to engage in bettering the world.

It’s true that our prayers will not stop a bullet. They won’t keep automatic weapons off the streets. Prayers will not clean up in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They will not build homes. They will not pass legislation. But we have no business believing that about prayer in the first place.

I’m concerned about the conflicting message that we may send by  one day declaring that ‘prayer is not enough,’ the next day leading worship services in synagogue and the next representing the Jewish people in interfaith prayer gatherings. It’s strange to think that one can minimize prayer one day and the next day expect a congregation of worshipers to arrive at your synagogue ready to pray. The question is not when we need prayer and when do we not, but rather, how can we enable prayer to go hand in hand with meaningful action.

Prayer can be a potent and important part of the solution. We shouldn’t expect more of prayer. But we shouldn’t expect less, either.

This is the prayer I sent my friend, the anti-gun advocate: Against Gun Violence

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.

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