Speaking with a colleague the other night, I was hearing how it is not uncommon to hear from those training for the rabbinate that they struggle with liturgical prayer. While this does not surprise me, it may be something that surprises, and perhaps troubles our congregants.
I can only speak personally, but I've traveled my own path to making prayer work for me. It has taken time - years, in fact. I suspect that most people don't have the patience, but it seemed rather important to me, given my desire to serve as a rabbi to the Jewish community. I've learned to love the 'back stories' (known and theorized) behind why our liturgical prayers came into being. Context and history provide one way in. But getting beyond the literal, and even getting beyond what might have been the original intended meaning, theology, and message, to recast liturgy to speak to us today, has helped me find moments of deep, thoughtful, prayerful experience in the midst of Jewish worship. Music helps a lot too.
Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, the High Holy Day liturgy can be particularly challenging. In the Reform movement this year, several hundred congregations will be praying out of a brand new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul). I am so excited by the potential that lies within the pages of this new prayer book. Perhaps, more than any other single thing I can highlight about what makes it so special, is the opportunity to get real.
What do I mean, by 'let's get real'? I think the best way to illustrate what has been missing for me in some of the liturgy (especially the english language readings) of our previous high Holy Day machzor and what is now available to us in our new book is to share one of the new texts with you. Here is a new text that introduces the Vidui (Confession) on Yom Kippur morning.
Because I didn't think
Because I was exhausted and on edge
Because I'd been drinking
Because I can be mean
Because I was reckless and selfish
Because I was worried about money
Because my marriage was dead
Because other people were doing it
Because I thought I could get away with it
I did something wrong.
Because I'm in pain
Because I wish I could undo it
Because I hurt him
Because I lost her trust
Because I let them down
Because I was self-destructive
Because I was foolish
Because I'm ashamed
Because that's not who I am
Because that's not who I want to be
I want to be forgiven.
bring down my walls of defensiveness and self-righteousness.
Help me to stay in humility.
give me the strength to do what's right.
copyright CCAR, 2015 (p. 293, Yom Kippur morning service)
I can't read this and remain on automatic pilot. I can't read this and coast through the ritual of reading words out loud in a room full of others, disconnected with the purpose of this holy day. I can't read this without being pulled out of my lethargy and denial and acknowledging that I have been so many of the things listed above. They ring true for me, and speak in a contemporary language that resonates with my experience in a way that some of the traditional words do not. There are other words that are part of the traditional vidui that are much easier for me to read as being about somebody else. But Yom Kippur is not about somebody else. It is about me, what I have done, who I am and who I want to be. And for the ritual of spending designated time in extended communal gatherings and prayer at the High Holy Days to be useful and meaningful, I need tools and texts that will take me to the places that I need to go if I am to emerge at the end feeling like anything has changed (even knowing that I'll need another 're-set' next year).
This year my #BlogElul posts will all feature new texts or new translations from Mishkan HaNefesh. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of moments within the prayer journey we take over these Holy Days, to familiarize ourselves with the gifts provided by new texts, and to begin to do the work of Soul refinement that can help us enter the New Year with greater intention. I invite you to join me, and share your own reflections to add to the conversation in the comments section. Together, let's make it real this month of Elul.