Rabbi Akiva said: How greatly God must have loved us to create us in the image of God; yet even greater love did God show us in making us conscious that we are created in the divine image.
Do not think you are obliged to repent only for transgressions involving acts, such as stealing, robbing, and sexual immorality. Just as we must repent such acts, so must we examine our evil feelings and repent our anger, our jealousy, our mocking thoughts, our excessive ambition and greed. We must repent all these. Therefore it is written: “Let the wicked forsake their ways, the unrighteous their thoughts (Isaiah 55:7).”
(Maimonides, 12th Century)
Ethical life has entered into religious life, and cannot be extracted from it. There is no responsibility unless there is One to whom one is responsible, for there is no response where there is no address….
As a child, every year around this time I would be sent to the bookshelf in our living room to fetch our family’s High Holy Day prayer books. I would find them stuffed in a corner behind Passover Haggadot, with a sheen of dust from not being touched in a year. I would bring them to the kitchen to await transport to Temple, one of last year’s tickets falling out en route. Once we got to services, the book sat on my lap, where sometimes I would follow along, trying to figure out the Hebrew or reading with the English. My favorite part was the pages in the front of the book, full of readings before the service sections begin. Little bits of High Holy Day wisdom that I would peruse if I got bored waiting for things to start or even during services, just never during the sermons, because those were always riveting. The three quotes I just recited all come from that section of Gates of Repentance.
Gates of Repentance is the Reform Machzor, or High Holy Day prayerbook. For the rest of the year, the prayerbook is referred to as a siddur, which comes from the root seder, meaning order. It comes from the idea that the prayers are said in a particular order, and the book helps keep us on track.
Machzor comes from the Hebrew root chazar, which means “return.” The machzor should move us to return to our best self, which often tends to get away from us from one year to the next. That’s the whole reason we’re here, right? To get back to where we want to be in our lives. To shake off the bad habits we have developed. To atone for the mistakes we have made. The machzor is designed to guide us back, to return us to who we want to be.
The machzor that we have tonight has been a part of our High Holy Day experience for almost 40 years. There are some good things about it and some things that could be improved. Since it has been used by the Reform movement for as long as I can remember, it is the only machzor I have ever used. I’m used to it, and coming in to the High Holy Days every year with that familiar burgundy book gives me comfort. There are plenty of parts that I am not crazy about in it. There are long stretches of readings where we only hear the service leader’s voice for quite a long time. There are readings that do not necessarily speak to what repentance means to us today. There are no transliterations. Its readings no longer always reflect the High Holy Day prayer experience that the Reform Jewish community desires in the 21st Century.
Gates of Repentance first came out in 1978, in an attempt to make a machzor that fit the worship experience of the day. It was innovative and exciting for its time. Since then three different versions have come out with linguistic changes to reflect our understanding of God and egalitarianism. But sometimes small changes in language are not enough.
In 2015 the CCAR Press produced Mishkan Hanefesh, a new machzor for our movement. As Rabbi Edwin Goldberg describes it, “Through updated translations, readings, and poetry…Mishkan Hanefesh breathes new life into High Holy Day services.” So I want to share with you a few of these differences to prepare us for the upcoming changes in our machzor.
The first blessing I want to point out is Hineini, the first prayer in our services tonight. Hineini is the prayer of the prayer leader, not meant to be a prayer for the congregation to participate in, but more to eavesdrop on. The service leader asks that their prayers merit the acceptance of the prayers for those they lead. You can find it on page 19 of Gates of Repentance to read along if you want:
Behold me of little merit, trembling and afraid, as I stand before You to plead for Your people. O gracious God, the One enthroned by Israel’s praises, compassionate and loving, accept my petition and that of my people….
In Hebrew, the next part invokes the names of our ancestors, and then implies the thirteen attributes of God—Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun… But those are simply left out of the translation in Gates of Repentance.
The translation in Mishkan Hanefesh is more literal, and keeps closer to the Hebrew. If you’re following along, the Hebrew is on page 18:
Here I am. So poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You to whom Israel sings praise. Although unworthy, I rise to pray and seek favor for Your people Israel, for they have entrusted me with this task. Therefore—God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah…Adonai, Adonai—merciful, gracious God…
Something I am particularly happy about is the direct translation of the second paragraph, which Gates of Repentance renders, “O God Supreme…” To be honest, that phrase always sounded like I was not praying so much as ordering a pizza.
If you were looking at the Hebrew while I read from Mishkan Hanefesh, you may have noticed that this is closer to literal. The editors call it an “idea for idea” translation rather than “word for word.” The goal, according to the introduction to Mishkan Hanefesh, is “to convey the intention of the Hebrew prayer and its impact, though a given English word may not match a dictionary gloss of the corresponding Hebrew word.” The translation team considered their work a sacred challenge, and they hope to have created a “prayerful, meaningful experience in English that is equivalent to the experience of praying in Hebrew.” After spending much time with these machzorim, I believe they have successfully done so.
There are a few parts of the service that have additions in Mishkan Hanefesh that are not in Gates of Repentance. The ones that will stand out the most are the extra shofar blasts. Right after the candles are lit for Erev Rosh Hashanah, we find one extra T’kiah. Situated at the very beginning of our Rosh Hashanah celebration, this shofar call is a way to herald the holiday as a community. The shofar is used every day throughout the month of Elul to let the Jewish community know that Rosh Hashanah approaches. On S’lichot the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, we end services with a T’kiah Gedolah, the longest of the shofar notes, that rings in our ears all the way home. Perhaps we have missed some of these, and are longing to hear the shofar’s sound. Perhaps we are so focused on wondering when we will hear the shofar, we struggle to focus on other blessings. Hearing the shofar at the very beginning of our prayer service allows us to wake up to the sound of the shofar, relax knowing that we have fulfilled the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, and focus on the task of T’shuvah that lies ahead.
There is perhaps nothing that cries Rosh Hashanah quite like the sound of the shofar. In Gates of Repentance, the three sections of the shofar service are placed at the end of the Torah service. After we read haftarah but before we put the Torah in the ark, we hear the calls of the shofar. The three sections signify God’s sovereignty, our communal memory, and the significance of the shofar. They are called Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Mishkan Hanefesh moves the Malchuyot section from the Torah service to the Amidah.
Right after Kedushat Hayom, the blessing that praises God for the holiness of Rosh Hashanah, we find the Malchuyot section of the shofar service, and then we continue with our prayer for thanksgiving. It doesn’t belong here! It’s weird, and may rattle us out of our comfort zone. But that is exactly what the shofar is supposed to do. We are supposed to be stirred by it, moved by it, and what better time to feel uprooted by shofar than right before we thank God. If we can be thankful when we are uncomfortable, imagine how thankful we can be for the rest of the year.
Finally, I want to show you a little bit about the structure of Mishkan Hanefesh. It is very similar to the set up of Mishkan T’filah, with the Hebrew on the upper right of most two page spreads, the “idea for idea” translation below that, and some alternative readings or meditations on the left side. The difference is in the editors’ intent of use of these blessings. In Mishkan Hanefesh, the distinction is also in the background color.
Most of the book is black letters on a white background. Nothing to throw us off here. Some sections have a grey or a blue background. The grey background designates an alternative reading to the blessing on the right side of the page. Poems and readings that we might choose as prayer leaders to offer instead of the traditional prayer on the white background. Some of these are new and were written specifically for Mishkan Hanefesh. Others are the “old favorites” from Gates of Repentance that the editors just couldn’t put in the geniza. From talking with people who have used Gates of Repentance for almost four decades, they were able to discern which readings the people would miss, and they made sure to keep them there.
In addition to readings on a grey background, there are some readings that appear on a blue background. These are meant to be meditations or study texts. Like the readings from the beginning of the Gates of Repentance services, these are meant to distract us in a positive way if we do not feel like following along in the service itself at that particular moment. The grey and blue sections allow us to be elsewhere in our minds, but still on the same page with our community. As an added bonus, the grey sections have no border, but the blue sections do, so if you are using a black and white reproduction or if you have difficulties visually distinguishing between grey and blue, you are not left behind from understanding intent behind the text.
The attributes of the new machzor that I have mentioned tonight only scratch the surface of the innovations of Mishkan Hanefesh, which is why Mishkan Hanefesh will be our study theme for 5778. Throughout the year we will meet to explore our new machzor, in preparation for using it when we are ready as a congregation, hopefully as early as next year. We will study individually and as a community, in our homes and here at CBT, with me or with lay leaders. Questions will be answered in classes and in Weekly Emails. On Yom Kippur Day this year, our annual “Ask Rabbi Young” study session will be machzor-focused, so come with questions about the new machzor, or about High Holy Day prayers in general.
But please, and this request is a little strange: DON’T BUY A COPY OF MISHKAN HANEFESH. We are looking into a way to get it for the entire congregation, so there should be no need to make anyone spend the money on their own copy. There will be opportunities for dedicating copies in honor of simchas and in memory of loved ones, but there should be no need to buy your own, unless you want one.
So as we begin 5778, may we be blessed with our openness to change. May we enjoy our time in study and in preparation, and may we all find that our prayers this year and always are lifted, and may the machzorim we use help us make that return to the best version of ourselves.