In mid-August I met with a colleague to do some High Holiday sermon brainstorming. Our conversation touched on a flurry of topics we were considering addressing, including the many different names of God, loss and grieving, and the Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We had intended to share resources from Jewish tradition we could draw on, perhaps providing one another with a spark of inspiration. But about half an hour in, I realized that we had shared links to four different episodes of NPR’s “This American Life” and had yet to mention a single passage from the Talmud or other Rabbinic texts.
I shared this revelation with my friend with a twinge of embarrassment, yet neither of us was that surprised. After all, an important part of our job, especially around the High Holidays, is to find contemporary relevance and meaning in ancient traditions and texts. Hebrew and Aramaic prayers and writings that are centuries or millennia old hold their own intrinsic power. Reciting them, listening to them and learning from them, even without a full understanding, may engage us spiritually. Yet while I won’t be broadcasting a podcast to my congregation from the Bimah, it also feels important to create opportunities to ground our prayer, worship and study in material that makes it feel fresh and brings new perspectives.
I know that my synagogue, Congregation Ahavas Achim, is not unique in drawing on a wide-ranging mix of resources in our services. We use “Machzor Lev Shalem” for the High Holidays, a prayerbook edited by Rabbi Ed Feld and first published in 2010. This machzor doesn’t look anything like the prayerbooks of most of our childhood memories; the pages are filled from edge to edge with commentary, English reflections on the prayers and supplementary and alternative readings, including poetry and contemporary interpretations.
Rabbi Feld writes, “We have been conscious that a High Holy Day congregation is a diverse community and that what speaks to some will not resonate with others. We hope that among the different voices you will find something that inspires your prayer.”
I believe he was successful in this aspiration, as every year I hear from congregants that these additions are an essential piece in helping them find new meaning within the familiar structure of the prayer services.
Reb Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic master living in Ukraine at the turn of the 19th Century, taught about the importance of making sure the words of our prayers resonate with us. He writes in Likutei Moharan, Part II: 25, “Prayer and conversation with God should be in the language one normally uses, because it is difficult for a person to say everything one wants to say in the holy tongue (Hebrew) … But in our native tongue, in which we normally speak and converse, it is much easier, and so more likely for one’s heart to break open. In one’s native tongue one can express oneself fully – everything that is in one’s heart.”
We can read Reb Nachman’s message in our own experiences of the High Holidays. If the traditional prayers work for you, that’s fantastic! If High Holiday standards like Kol Nidre or Avinu Malkeinu don’t move you, don’t despair! You can turn to words, prayers, poems and songs that feel more relatable to you, or even generate your own. What’s most important is how our hearts are moved, not our lips.
One of the great opportunities of the High Holidays is just how many different modes of connection each of us is offered; we have more tools in our toolbox than any other time of year. If the liturgy isn’t speaking to you, maybe this year what you need most is to hear the sound of the shofar, or experience the full Yom Kippur fast, or lie fully prostrate during the Aleinu, or throw breadcrumbs or stones into a body of water at tashlich. There are countless pathways to create meaningful experiences of reflection between the beginning of the month of Elul and the end of Yom Kippur.
The dedication in “The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme” by the contemporary poet Marge Piercy, reads, “For all who may find here poems that speak to their identity, their history, their desire for ritual – ritual that may work for them – these poems are yours as well as mine.” Piercy invites us to share in her words, to take what works for us and make it our own. Over the course of the High Holidays and in the year ahead, may we be blessed to discover what speaks to us in the vast scope of our tradition and truly make it our own.
Shanah Tovah. Θ
Rabbi Alex Matthews leads Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport.