Image: A person diving in deep water. Photo by unsplash via pixabay.com.

Two Days of Atonement I shall never forget.

One was my first Yom Kippur after ordination. I officiated at my first funeral about 1pm in the afternoon before Kol Nidre*. The deceased woman’s name was Ruth. Although I did my best to focus on her and her family, I could not shake the feeling that I was officiating at my own funeral, reciting the prayers in my own name. That feeling clung to me that evening and all the next day.

The second memorable Yom Kippur was last year. The morning before Kol Nidre I suddenly felt desperate for air. The feeling worsened, and I lay across my kitchen table gasping for breath. It crossed my mind that I might be dying, and as we sped towards the hospital all I could think was that I was not ready, definitely not ready to die. The ER staff ascertained that my lungs were riddled with blood clots; they administered medicine and treated my family gently. Later I learned that the survival rate for pulmonary embolisms is low; I am fortunate to be alive.

Every Yom Kippur we rehearse for our own deaths, eschewing physical pleasures to focus on the meaning of our mortality. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that life is terrifyingly unpredictable. Those two Days of Atonement drove these messages home in a way even prayer and fasting cannot. I felt heaven saying, “Pay attention!” Perhaps it takes a brush with mortality to help us fully appreciate the time we have and value life’s potential. May we each rise from prayer after the holy day with a renewed sense of the urgency of life, the preciousness of every moment.

*Kol Nidre is the name of a recitation in the evening service that begins Yom Kippur. It has also come to refer to the whole service, and the evening it is recited.

What is a Machzor?

Image: Calligraphy from the Worms Machzor, 13th century. Public domain.

The Machzor is the book of services and prayers for the Jewish High Holy Days, covering the services from Erev Rosh Hashanah [Rosh Hashanah evening] to the close of Yom Kippur. It is different from the Siddur [Prayer Book] used during regular weekday and Shabbat services in synagogue.

The word machzor is from a root meaning “return.” These are special services that return annually.

There are many different machzorim in print, and many others that have been compiled by congregations for their own use. In any machzor, there are certain things you can expect to find, although not necessarily all of them are in every machzor:

  1. THE BASIC SERVICE – The core prayers of the service will remain. To learn more about those, read What Goes on in a Jewish Service?
  2. PIYYUTIM – (pee-you-TEEM) – Special poetic prayers written just for the holy day. These include the Unetaneh Tokef, about which I have written more in The Hardest Prayer in the Book and Life is Unfair. Now What? Another famous prayer is Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King.]
  3. ROYALTY, MEMORY, & SHOFAR – This is a small service embedded in the Rosh HaShanah daytime service, including Biblical verses and poetry, and the blowing of the shofar.
  4. VIDUI – The vidui is a confession of sins.
  5. KOL NIDRE – This legal formula (no, it isn’t a prayer!) opens Yom Kippur service. It is so dominant in the minds of many Jews that many refer to the entire evening service with the shorthand “Kol Nidre.” For more about this text and its many meanings, read What Does Kol Nidre Mean? 
  6. AVODAH – “work” – A Yom Kippur service that recalls the purification of the sanctuary in Temple Times.
  7. MARTYROLOGY – Also known as Eleh Ezkarah “These I remember” it is a recitation of names and stories of Jewish martyrs.
  8. JONAH – On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah, which is usually included in machzorim for that purpose.
  9. NEILAH – The closing service of Yom Kippur, which takes place as the sun is setting.

You don’t need to acquire a machzor; it is supplied by the congregation. However, one way to prepare for the High Holy Days is to read and study a machzor.

May you have an insightful and fruitful High Holy Day season!

Life is Unfair. Now What?

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing the shofar. Photo by Tamir Blank.

Yesterday I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the harshest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It reminds us that we do not know what lies ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

After the “Who will live and who will die” section, though, it talks about “how to avert the severe decree.” That’s the second place at the prayer loses many of us: what? We can avoid dying? Avoid tragedy? What sort of foolishness is that?

The prayer seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is nonsense. Bad things happen to good people every day. If we know anything at all about life, we know that it is not fair.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune with teshuvahtefilah, and tzedakah. Instead, I believe those are means with which we may work our way towards a life after tragedy.  Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build a bridge towards life. If we have not yet suffered misfortune, we can use the three to build a strong, rich life that may be a source of sustenance in bad times. If we have already suffered a tragedy, these are the tools for working our way back towards life.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

If you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

For individuals who suffer trauma,  the Unetaneh Tokef offers a possible path not to forget a tragedy, but to find a way to choose life despite everything.

The Hardest Prayer in the Book

Image: A car accident with the caption, “Who will live and who will die?” 

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

The Unetaneh Tokef [“Let Us Tell the Power”] is probably the scariest prayer in the entire liturgy. It begins with a preamble to set the tone, reminding us that even the angels are terrified of the Day of Judgement, which is right now. Judgement Day is not some faraway time, not some mythical other universe, but right here and right now.

Then, before we have a chance to really digest that startling idea, it states an obvious fact that none of us want to think about: we have absolutely no idea who will live to see next year. So that we cannot dodge the thought, it spells it out with the catalogue above in a relentless cadence whether you read it in Hebrew or English: there are many unpleasant ways to die, and we are vulnerable to all of them.

We. Personally. Individually. Are. Going. To. Die.

None of us want to think about it. Ask any attorney who assists people in writing a will. Clients know they are supposed to have one and they don’t want to think about it. They cancel the appointment (“Whoops! I forgot about the dentist appointment!”) they forget the appointment (“Where is my brain???”) they show up to the appointment without important documents, they stall on reviewing it once written, and they don’t like paying the bill for the whole thing either. We human beings resist thinking about our own mortality.

So once a year, the liturgy gets directly in our faces and forces us to think about it. This prayer is a wake-up call.

If I knew for a fact that my life would be over next week:

  • What words do I want to say, and to whom, today?
  • What messes do I want to clean up, and not leave behind me?
  • What will I choose to do with my time in the next week?
  • How do I want to be remembered, by family, by friends, by my opponents?
  • What is too important to leave undone?

These are the questions of the High Holy Days. Unpleasant as it is, the Unetaneh Tokef grabs us by our lapels and shakes us, reminding us of the obvious: time may be short. 

All that said, there are those for whom the words of the prayer dredge up the horror of recent trauma. A Jewish blogger named Deborah who lost her father to suicide describes her decision about this year’s prayer in Why I Will Leave the Room when the Unetaneh Tokef is Recited on the High Holy Days. As a rabbi, I endorse her way of dealing with the prayer in her situation.

I myself nearly died last Yom Kippur. Blood clots in my lungs robbed me of breath and came close to robbing me of life. I don’t know how I will experience the Unetaneh Tokef this year, but my plan is to take lots of Kleenex and hang tough. If I learned anything last year, it was that we must periodically stop and say, “Really, what if I die tomorrow?” because that is reality. So I plan to do it, this year and every year.

You have to decide what’s right for you.

The High Holy Day services are laden with rich experiences: sounds, sights, words, ideas. To whatever degree we can be fully present to them, they will make us more fully present to the rich potential in our lives.

What is Selichot?

Image: A waning moon. Photo by Thomas Bresson.

Tonight is Selichot at many synagogues around the world.

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach [tune], listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list can disturb the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. My neighbors and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so their sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY ALL THIS FOCUS ON SIN?  When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui [list of sins] are behaviors that will have bad consequences if left unchecked. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility and take action to change our behavior in the future. Ideally, this is more than “resolving to do better” – it involves an action plan.

6. WHY IS THE SERVICE HELD  AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if we don’t believe in God, we need to deal with things we have done.  Whatever is your highest ideal, focus on that and substitute it for the God-language.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. It is usually not a long service. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. But more than anything else, it is a service to get us ready to change our ways for the better. Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

High Holy Days for Beginners, 5777

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on October 3, 2016. It will begin the Jewish Year 5777. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Friday September 2, 2016 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101. Both are short entries on this blog.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5777!

Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days

Image: Man blowing a shofar. Photo by jonathunder via wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

Do you hear the sound of that distant horn?

The High Holy Days are on their way sooner than we realize. This year they begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown on October 2, 2016. Yom Kippur will begin at sundown on October 11.

In other words, school begins in the Northern Hemisphere and then “bam!” it will be time to welcome 5777.

Are you reading anything to prepare for the season this year? Doing anything else to prepare?

Here are some books I’ve found useful for High Holy Days preparation. Don’t try to read them all! Spending quality time with one good book can be an excellent help.

The official start date for preparation is the first of Elul. This year (2016) that will fall on Friday, Sept 2 at sundown. I’m publishing this list now so that you can have a bit of lead time to visit your local Jewish bookshop!