Monday, September 27, 2004

The Yamim Noraim/High Holidays: Concerning quotes, cantors, qualms, and kavannah

A couple of posts ago, I was looking for a quote:

“Hanistarot laShem kelokénu, v’haniglot lanu u-l’vanénu ad olam, la-asot et kol divré hatorah hazot. The secret things belong to HaShem our G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 29, verse 28) . . . I know I’ve heard this quote in the Yamim Noraim/High Holiday services somewhere, but I can’t remember where.”

Eureka—I found it! It’s at the very end of the long vidui/confessional Al Chet, only a few sentences after the final “V’al kulam . . .” This quote appears only in the Yom Kippur services, not in those for Rosh Hoshanah (which stands to reason, since we don’t do either the short [“Ashamnu . . .”] or the long vidui/confessional on Rosh Hashanah).

The more learned among you may find the above rather obvious, but for me, with my limited Jewish education and knowledge of Hebrew, the ability to track a quote cited in a siddur or machzor back to its Torah origin, or to figure out where in a siddur or machzor a quote from the Torah appears, is a major accomplishment, and one that I could not have achieved 30 years ago. Apparently, I’m improving with age.

And now, from the allegedly sublime to the arguably ridiculous: Both of our chazzanim—the High Holiday cantor and the regular one—drove me crazy, for a change. Our High Holiday cantor of the past few years, imported from Israel, gets the congregants jumping by singing parts of the service to well-known secular tunes. This year, he used everything from “Erev Ba” to “Yerushalim shel Zahav” to Elvis Presley to “G-d Bless America” to melodies from the Broadway musicals Fiddler on the Roof and Les Misérables, with a few Italian tunes and some arias thrown in for good measure. (And then, of course, our regular cantor, not wishing to be outdone, and with his usual delusions of operatic talent, does the same thing.) The congregants love it. I hate it. (I find it distracting.) What’s the matter with good old-fashioned nusach? But if we don’t hire him again for next year, members will complain and non-members will go elsewhere. So when the vote comes up, what’s a member of the Ritual Committee and the Board of Directors to do?

Adam Ragil’s Monday, September 20, 2004, post at is right on the money (you should pardon the expression). “Why is the shul transformed to a shuk on the holiest day of the year? …The modern shul is a business; it must sell something to survive. But must we do the selling in the sanctuary on Yom Kippur? It always reminds me of Jesus driving out the moneylenders and who wants to be reminded of Jesus on Yom Kippur?I've brought this complaint to the shul powers. They respond: we need the money. Isn't that a prostitute's argument? Does money answer everything? And what's next? Will we allow the local pizza place to put an ad on the paroches? . . . “

Unfortunately for me, as a member of the Ritual Committee and the Board of Directors, I *am* the shul powers (or among them, at least). Do I feel like a prostitute for voting for money-making popularity over proper nusach? Oy, don’t ask. :(

(My husband says that, when the Chassidic movement began, and started putting more emphasis on joy in davvening, people complained then, too, so what else is new?)

Then there’s other news, both good and bad. The good news is that either my Hebrew is improving with practice or I’ve been having rochmones on myself and using more English this year (probably both)—it’s getting easier for me to davven/pray the Yamim Noraim services. The bad news is that, between all the speed-davvening that I do to try to keep up so that I don’t miss U’n’taneh Tokef and the distraction of playing “Name That Tune” through half the services, my kavvanah/focus/intent is far from what it ought to be. What a dilemma: Kavvanah comes to me most readily when I davven at my own speed, but I can’t davven at my own speed when I davven b’tzibbur/pray with a congregation.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

“. . . haKel HaKadosh nikdash bi-tzedakah:” Thoughts for Aseret Y’mé Teshuvah/The Ten Days of Repentance

For some reason, this phrase has stuck in my head for the past two Rosh Hashanahs (Rashé Hashanah?). The translation’s a bit tricky—I’ve seen the word “tzedakah” translated as righteousness, charity, victory, and retribution. The whole quote (from Isaiah, chapter 5, verse 16), found in the Amidah just before the brachah/blessing HaMelech HaKadosh (the Holy King), reads as follows: “Vayigbah HaShem tz’va-ot bamishpat, v’haKel haKadosh nikdash bi-tzedakah (And the L-rd of Hosts is exalted by judgment, The Holy G-d proved holy by retribution,” according to the Jewish Publication Society translation). Well, I’ve also seen the word “mishpat” translated as justice. So I figure it’s open season for interpretation. Here’s my version: “And the L-rd of Hosts is exalted through justice, and the holy G-d is sanctified through righteousness.”

I see no reason to assume that HaShem has to do all the work. What can we do, as individuals and collectively, to elevate HaShem’s name through justice? What can we do to sanctify HaShem through righteousness? Isaiah points us in the right direction (in the Haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur) when he exhorts us to let the oppressed go free and share our bread with the hungry. I’ve always thought that the fact that “tzedakah” can mean both righteousness and charity says a lot about the Jewish attitude toward charity. It doesn’t surprise me that our tradition tells us that tzedakah, along with teshuvah/repentance and tefillah/prayer, help us to earn forgiveness. But it’s even more important to commit acts of righteousness/charity throughout the year.

Here’s some recommended reading for the Yamim Noraim/High Holidays from two much better writers:

The Personal and the "Am" , at

Rosh Hashanah Sermon, at


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Wanted: A guide for the perplexed :)

Technical issues are a minor annoyance for me, due to my non-existent knowledge of programming. Here’s Reva haShotah doing fancy fiddling with photos and posting them on her blog, and I don’t even know enough HTML to turn her URL,, into a hyperlink—unless I get lucky and Blogspot does the work for me, you can click all you want and you’ll never get there from here. [By George--Apparently, I got lucky.] Just call me Ms. Clueless in Cyberspace. :)

As for religious issues, never having been Orthodox, and not having grown up in an Orthodox neighborhood, I’m pretty lost when it comes to Orthodox politics. According to Elf at, “Frumster lists over ten varieties of Orthodoxy, ranging from "Black Hat Yeshivish" to "Flexidox." Is Black Hat the same thing as Yeshivish? Is either one the same thing as Chareidi, or are they each a type of Chareidi? And why are the writers and commenters at Jewish Musings,, always yelling at one another about Black Hats and Chassidim?

When I want a little Modern Orthodox sanity, I go to , where many of the frum folk who are not "intellectually lazy" hang out. I’m also most appreciative that the writer of occasionally takes time to let her readers ask questions about her Orthodox life and how she got there from a Reform upbringing. I find some insight into the contrasting worlds of Modern Orthodox synagogues and schtieblach at the blog of Adam Ragil (who davvens in both), The author of helps me see a more reasoned picture of Chassidic life.

As a serious Jew who's not Orthodox, I enjoy reading and . When I’m feeling both serious and studious, and am interested in reading long, well-thought-out posts, I check out . The Zionist in me appreciates the musings taking place in An Unsealed Room at and the thoughts about This Normal Life at

I didn’t having had the benefit of a day-school education, and I lack the fortitude of an Akiva to do something about it at my age. But I find that these blogs are helping me catch up just a smidge on some of the Jewish education that I missed, while also giving me insight into some of the more traditional segments of the Jewish community. Thanks to all the writers, and Shanah Tovah to all.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Choosing Judaism in Torah times, the joys of quote-hunting, and more

“You are standing here this day, all of you, before HaShem your G-d—your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger/foreigner who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water—in order to enter into the covenant of HaShem your G-d and into His oath that HaShem your G-d makes with you this day.” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 29, verses 9-11) Once upon a time, a non-Jew could become Jewish through association. But Ezra and Nechemiah seem to have found a problem with that, so the rabbis later developed rules for conversion. Now we’re fighting about who’s a Jew (or, to be precise, who’s a rabbi.) Sometimes I think Jewish unity would be a lot easier to maintain if we’d stuck to the earlier tradition.

“For this commandment that I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, and it is not too far away. Lo va-shamayim hi . . . it is not in heaven . . .” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verses 11-12) It may be hard to be a Jew, as the Yiddish saying goes, but it’s not impossible.

“Hanistarot laShem kelokénu, v’haniglot lanu u-l’vanénu ad olam, la-asot et kol divré hatorah hazot. The secret things belong to HaShem our G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 29, verse 28) One of the things I love to do when reading the chumash (“Five-Books-of-Moses-plus-haftarot” book) is to figure out where in the siddur/prayer book a quote is mentioned, or whence a quote found in the siddur originated in the chumash. I know I’ve heard this quote in the Yamim Noraim/High Holiday services somewhere, but I can’t remember where. I’ll be looking and listening for it in a few days.  [Found it!]

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; u-vacharta ba-chaim therefore choose life . . . “ (Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verse 19) Hertz, in his chumash, comments, “Jewish ethics is rooted in the doctrine of human responsibility . . . “ (page 882). I’m not traditional enough to believe that I’ll live longer if I obey halachah/Jewish law, but, on the other hand, I think taking Jewish tradition seriously and taking responsibility for my actions both help me add meaning to whatever lifespan I have.

In Vayéléch, Moshe/Moses tells the people Israel that he’s 120 years old and can’t get around as well as he used to. (Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verse 2) Being a bit of a skeptic, I’ve always felt that Moshe died of old age rather than because he was being punished for disobeying HaShem.

I may be a skeptic, but Moshe was a cynic: According to Vayéléch, he just assumed that the Jewish people will continue to be the stiff-necked sinners and backsliders that they were while they were under his leadership. After all the grief we gave him, I can’t say I blame him. On the other hand, with the Yamim Noraim coming up, perhaps we should give Moshe the kavod/honor/respect of trying to become better than that.

What’s wrong with being fair, part 2: The rabbi explains what the problem is

In the spirit of Elul, I must confess that I was quite angry, and didn't show derech eretz/courtesy. I intend to ask the rabbi's forgivesness.

Rabbi: The tradition is to mention only the name of the sick person's mother's name when saying a mi-sh'berarch. Mentioning the sick person's father's name, too, is against halachah [Jewish law].
Me: The three previous rabbis didn't complain. You're approaching this from an Orthodox perspective. If I wanted to follow an Orthodox interpretation of halachah, I'd be davvening in an Orthodox shul, not here.
Rabbi: You’re making an innovation.
Me: I don’t have a problem with innovation—I don’t seen what’s wrong with that. Besides, I’m not imposing my minhag [custom] on anyone else.
Rabbi: Yes you are. When you davven the silent Amidah, that’s private prayer. But the mi-sh’berach prayer is b’tzibbur [communal]. It's the policy of this congregation that you can't make a change in the service without the permission of the Ritual Committee.

Ouch. Tune in sometime after Simchat Torah, when I’ll report on the vote of the Ritual Committee.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

What’s wrong with being fair?

For roughly twenty years, every time I’ve gotten up to request that a mi-sh’berach prayer be said for a relative or friend, I’ve mentioned the sick person’s mother’s name, in accordance with tradition, and then added the father’s name. It seems only fair—if I add the Mothers to the Amidah, how can I omit fathers from other prayers? In twenty years, three previous rabbis—two of them graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary—never objected to my personal minhag/custom, nor did even the most traditional members of our synagogue. But last Shabbat, out of a clear blue sky, our rabbi, who’s been with us for almost exactly a year, sprang it on me that this is forbidden by Jewish law. All of a sudden, something that I’ve been doing for twenty years has to be discussed by the Ritual Committee? That’s what we get for hiring a black-hat Orthodox rabbi from Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva (since we can’t afford to hire a Conservative rabbi from JTS or the University of Judaism). If I wanted to follow a right-wing Orthodox interpretation of halachah/Jewish law, I wouldn’t be a member of a Conservative synagogue.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Parshat & Haftarat Ki Tavo: In memory of the victims of terrorism

In this parsha, we read a quote that’s now part of our seder: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the L-rd our G-d, the G-d of our fathers, and the L-rd heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the L-rd brought us forth out Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders (Deuteronomy, chapter 26, verses 5-8).”

How did we get from there to here: Just a few months ago, a mother and all of her children are shot at point-blank range in their car, the toddler still strapped in her child-safety seat; just a few days ago, two buses traveling in opposite directions in Beersheva are blow up mere seconds apart when they’re about a hundred feet from one another, killing 16, including a four-year-old, and injuring 100? I’m not traditional enough to accept a literal interpretation of the curses in Parshat Ki Tavo that suggest that our suffering is punishment for our sins.

These verses from Haftarat Ki Tavo practically jumped off the page at me this morning: “Violence will no more be heard in your land, desolation nor destruction within your borders . . . (Isaiah, chapter 60, verse 18).” Halevaï—it should only happen! The prophet expressed my hope for the coming year: “Your people will all be righteous, they will inherit the land forever (Isaiah, chapter 60, verse 20).” Bi-m’héra, b’yaménu, b’karov—Speedily, in our day, soon.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Hashem Ori v'Yish'i--Psalm 27, the "Penitential Psalm:" ArtScroll's commentary, & mine

Here's the text (translation courtesy of the ArtScroll Siddur):

Of David; HASHEM is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear: HASHEM is my life’s strength, whom shall I dread? When evildoers approach me to devour my flesh, my tormentors and my foes against me—it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army would besiege me, my heart would not fear; though war would arise against me, in this I trust. One thing I asked of HASHEM, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the House of HASHEM all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of HASHEM and to contemplate in His Sanctuary. Indeed, He will hide me in His Shelter on the day of evil; He will conceal me in the concealment of His Tent, He will lift me upon a rock. Now my head is raised above my enemies around me, and I will slaughter offerings in His Tent accompanied by joyous song; I will sing and make music to HASHEM. HASHEM, hear my voice when I call, be gracious toward me and answer me. In Your behalf, my heart has said, ‘Seek My Presence’; Your Presence, HASHEM, do I seek. Conceal not Your Presence from me, repel not Your servant in anger. You have been my Helper, abandon me not forsake, me not, O God of my salvation. Though my father and mother have forsaken me, HASHEM will gather me in. Teach me Your way, HASHEM, and lead me on the path of integrity, because of my watchful foes. Deliver me not to the wishes of my tormentors, for there have arisen against me false witnesses who breathe violence. Had I not trusted that I would see the goodness of HASHEM in the land of life! Hope to HASHEM, strengthen yourself and He will give your courage; and hope to HASHEM.

Some commentary from the ArtScroll Siddur:

“HASHEM is my light. The custom to recite this psalm during the period of repentance is based on the Midrash. It expounds: HASHEM is my light, on Rosh Hashanah; and my salvation, on Yom Kippur; He will hide me in His shelter, an allusion to Succos. The implication is that on Rosh Hashanah God helps us see the light and repent; on Yom Kippur He provides us salvation by forgiving our sins. Once we are forgiven, He shelters us from all foes and dangers, just as He sheltered our ancestors in the Wilderness. Because of this allusion to the preparation for repentance and its aftermath, the custom was adopted to recite this psalm during the entire repentance period from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Shemini Atzeres.”

From my serious but less literal perspective, I hope, through introspection, to see the light on Rosh Hashanah and strive to improve my behavior. On Yom Kippur, I ask those against whom I’ve sinned to forgive me, and aim to improve my behavior concerning such ritual and communal acts as reciting brachot, doing ma-asim tovim/good deeds , etc. As for Hashem sheltering us, I see providing shelter—literal (through tzedakah/charity), spiritual (through supporting a synagogue), and/or psychological (through, for example, nichum avélim/comforting mourners)—to others as a way to express my gratitude for all the good that has come my way.
<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>