Books High Holy Days Holiday Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

Mishkan HaLev: Transported Beyond Words

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.

Books High Holy Days Prayer

Mishkan HaLev: Trying the New S’lichot Service

I am sitting in the Metropolitan Opera House waiting for my favorite moment.  Those majestic crystal chandeliers start rising high into the sky and the spotlight reveals an elegantly attired conductor.  The house goes silent, the baton lifts, and the orchestra begins.  The sounds of the music go straight into the hearts of the 3,800 people who are enraptured.  This is my favorite moment:  the overture.

S’lichot is the overture for our High Holy Days and my favorite part of the holiday.  With sadness, I wrestle with the fact that roughly 0.001% of my congregation is present for the overture.  Would those same congregants walk into the Metropolitan Opera House late?  I have to wonder.

How could we draw more people to be present for S’lichot?  Yes, I know.  It’s the food.  Bring them in with food.  But even food won’t keep them there and wanting to come back.  Neither will a good performance.  They can go elsewhere for good food and good performances. We can only hold them with what we do best:  focus on meaning, tradition, faith, and a touching of that spot in the heart where no one else can go.product_image-4

When the chance came to pilot the CCAR’s new prayerbook for Elul and S’lichot, I jumped.  My biggest challenge was going to be bowing out of the regional S’lichot service that had been a tradition for years, notwithstanding that it was a tradition that, if the feet do the judging, was not working for us because no one came.  The opportunity to pilot the prayerbook for Elul and S’lichot was my chance to make a radical change and offer our own S’lichot service.  Our Cantor was game to try it.  Our Ritual Committee was game to try it.  We decided to try it.  One benefit of our regional S’lichot was that our lack of participants wasn’t so noticeable, but if no one came this time it would be patently obvious for all to see.  But they did come.  And I am convinced that Mishkan HaLev is why they will come again next year.

The overriding reason why Mishkan HaLev works is that it is rooted in joy.  The season is so somber and the work so heavy, how refreshing it is to begin our overture for the High Holy Days in joy.  We actually celebrate the fact that we can change our lives.  The name of the prayerbook – Mishkan HaLev – promises a connection to the other Mishkan prayerbooks in our lives, but also the focus on the heart.  Mishkan HaLev focuses us on the joyful heart.

I am privileged to work with an awesome cantor.  He and I read through the pilot copy together.  We read it out loud with just each other.  We agreed that our purpose was not a concert by cantor or choir.  There was far too much material to utilize, so we had to edit ourselves down.  We were able to do so by noting the individual movements of the service: Havdalah, Entering the Gates of S’lichot, the Promise of Forgiveness, the Path of Return, the B’rit of Compassion and the Call of the Shofar.  We chose our selections from each of these sections to provide balance and direction for the service.  We chose musical selections that we wanted to teach prior to Rosh HaShanah and those that would be familiar and make the heart beat faster.

God bless the Yehuda Amichai poetry throughout the prayerbook.  How does he do it?  A profound tying of the ancient and the modern and a message that jumps out and hits you on the head without being moralistic or pendantic.  “From the place where we are right…” is but one example.  The appearance of that poem alone makes Mishkan HaLev worthwhile.

Praying with a prayerbook that we knew was not yet “cast in stone,” was part of the excitement.  Like our human selves who were present because of the possibility of changing ourselves, so too the draft prayerbook.  How will the draft version continue to change before going to the printer?  I don’t know.  I hope there may be more chatimot following English readings to better connect them to the original Hebrew prayers, and I hope that layout decisions may afford the opportunity, as in Mishkan T’filah, for the open spread to all reflect one body of work with the more traditional on the right and the interpretive on the left.

But most significantly:  I believe that Mishkan HaLev helps to open our hearts to the tasks at hand.  I saw it with my own eyes and our synagogue has already put in its order for the printed version.  It will be in our hands to open the gates of 5778.

Rabbi Stacy Offner serves Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT.

CCAR Press offers special pre-publication discounts for Mishkan HaLev.  A preview of Mishkan HaLev is now available!

Learn more about the book on our website.  The order form for large orders can be found here.