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Renew our Prayers, Renew our Days

09/03/2019 08:20:12 PM


Right in the middle of Labour Day weekend 2019, Rosh Hodesh Elul - the first day of the month of preparation for the Jewish New Year - fell on September 1st. For one month, the Jewish calendar numbers will completely align with the Gregorian dates.

The High Holy Days, paradoxically, line up pretty well with the rest of year. There is a lot more alignment than there is difference between what we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than you might think. There is, of course, a great deal added. Many pages, many words! I can still picture myself as a little girl who loved being at synagogue, sitting in the women’s section of the Young Israel of Chomedey on a Yom Kippur, holding the mahzor in my hands as I flipped ahead, wondering how it could be that we would read all those words together in one day!

For the Days of Awe, along all those “extras” we still will recite the Barechu, the “call to worship” that we typically precede with the sung Kavanah: As we bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed. We will again chant the Shema; stand, bend, and sway (or sit in quiet contemplation) for an Amidah; sing the familiar passages as we take out the Torah.

How we make each year, each holiday, each Shabbat, each ritual come to life represents a beautiful and complex challenge, not only for liturgical leaders like rabbis and cantors, but for those who choose to engage, connect, and live into a Judaism imbued with both enduring meanings and contemporary relevance.

It’s always a delight to return to our mahzor from the Kol Haneshamah prayer book series. Its pages are rich with tradition as well as modern texts, all laid out in a style that has since been copied by the major Jewish denominations, and many post-denominational collections as well. On each page, in supplementary readings, in kavanot and commentaries, there are options for each pray-er. Yet I cherish knowing that the deep structure, the foundation for all we need to say and sing and chant together, is there.

On the rare occasion, I’ll integrate a key piece of poetry or text from beyond its covers, Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of the Unetaneh tokef prayer, “Who By Fire,” being a compelling example.

As a(nother) year of tremendous global upheavals, with massive numbers of displaced peoples,  the deepening crisis of devastation to the planet’s waters and lands, I wonder with many of you how to – literally – hold this book in my hands this year. Even as I take comfort in the riches within those pages, I’ll be weaving into my own prayers and inner work a sense of these times, and where I find myself in it all.

In our Shabbat siddur, the poem Nishmat by Marge Piercy reads, in part:

We stand in the midst of the burning world
primed to burn with compassionate love and justice,
to turn inward and find holy fire at the core,
to turn outward and see the world that is all
of one flesh with us, see under the trash, through
the smog, the furry bee in the apple blossom,
the trout leaping, the candles our ancestors lit for us.

In any prayer book, at the conclusion of the Torah service, we chant a phrase from the book of Lamentation, one that we will also sing on Yom Kippur:

Hashiveinu adonay elecha venashuva - chadesh yameynu kekedem.
Return us, Blessed One, let us return – renew our days as you have done of old.

Colleagues have been busy this summer rewriting or embellishing some traditional texts, primed as they are to “burn with compassionate love and justice” and to renew our days, and our prayers. Rabbi Brant Rosen created an invocation at a gathering protesting the ways in which asylum seekers are being detained in the United States, wrapping the words into a Shalom Aleichem. Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman posted this setting of the evening prayer Hashkiveinu that weaves in a plea for refugee children that transcends borders.

We enter the season of renewal with renewed open-heartedness, poised to align this very moment, these very dates, with the wisdom of the ancients.

Rabbi Liz

Mon, March 30 2020 5 Nisan 5780