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We are in the throes of a very intensive period in the Jewish calendar: the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and then Sukkot. One of the things we do an awful lot of in this period is pray. Sefardim began the special slichot prayers at the start of the month of Elul, Ashkenazim this past Saturday night, and these continue through Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur themselves we pray more or less all the time.
A large percentage of these prayers get repeated, again and again and again. Many of my co-religionists appreciate this repetition of the prayers, and find comfort, power, and meaning in it. My wonderful nephew, Elyasaf Chiott, and his terrific wife Adina, just had a baby boy. At the brit, they spoke of the fact that the word Teshuva – repentance – has the word shuv – שוב - in it, which means to return, but also means “again”. In this period of the year, again and again, we say and say again the prayers relating to repentance, soul searching, forgiveness, and there is comfort, unity, strength and meaning to be found in going back, repeatedly, to these ancient, well-known, tried and true formulas.
Well, to be honest, it doesn’t always work that well for me. I often find it hard to feel excited about, or find much meaning in, words that I just said a few days, hours, or minutes, ago. The repetitious nature of prayer – and not just in this High Holiday season, but all year as well – can often seem more like a challenge, a chore, rather than a source of strength.
In Parshat Nitzavim, which we read this Shabbat, immediately before Rosh Hashanah, and in the parshas we have been reading for the past few weeks, there has been a lot of repetition of the word היום “today”. On the most basic level, this is because the bulk of the entire book of Devarim takes place on the last day of the life of Moshe. His message is dramatic: today, my last day with you, I want to affirm your covenant with God. I want to make sure you understand your commitment to His Torah. Today is a big, momentous, day, in my life, and in Jewish history.
The Rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud notice this stress on the word “today” and say something interesting about it. When we read the word “today” in these parshas, we are meant to understand that it also refers to today, the actual day we are living in. We are meant to learn, from Moshe’s constant stress on how today we are affirming our relationship with God, today we are accepting and committing ourselves to live by the Torah, that the today-ness of that commitment is crucial. Moshe is telling us that as the centuries and millennia go by, as Judaism becomes, chronologically, old, we need somehow to be able to feel and relate to our Judaism as if it is new, as if we just received it today. As if we were affirming our covenant with God for the first time today.
How can this be done? How can something my people and I have been doing for a very long time be made to feel new? I think that, typically, there are two ways to create this feeling of newness, to achieving the today-ness Moshe asks us to experience. One is to find within ourselves an emotional, mental, and spiritual freshness to our relationship with the tradition. To be alert, focused, emotionally present, when we pray the same old prayers, when we do, again and again, the same rituals, perform the same Mitzvot. It is a kind of inner work we need to do, to be alive, each time we do them, to the message, meaning, and power of the religious performance we are engaged in.
In order to succeed at getting ourselves excited about familiar acts, we rely on a number of strategies. We talk ourselves into it, with meditation-type exercises, or prayers to get us into the prayers. Sometimes we tweak the setting of these familiar rituals: we come up with new and beautiful tunes – the Carlebach phenomenon of the past decades is a good example - we say the same words at Kaballat Shabbat, but add new tunes, clapping, dancing, musical accompaniment, to make it fresh. Or we travel to new places: Uman, the graves of other great Rabbis, beautiful or historical sites, to give a new background to the familiar prayers. These are all strategies for making the old new.
Now, I have done this, I do this (not going to Uman, the other stuff), and it works. Sometimes. But not always. At times, the sheer weight of the repetitiousness of the prayer, or ritual act, our familiarity with it, makes it difficult to feel something new. I think the Rabbis were well aware of this – it is at the root of their discussion of the need for כוונה (kavannah) , intent, focus, awareness, when we say prayers or do Mitzvot; they know we don’t always find it easy to focus on and think about the prayer we are reciting or the ritual we are doing. For this reason, they often exempt us from the need for kavannah, or make allowances for reduced attention, as they know it is difficult to fine something new, interesting, and exciting in the familiar.
The other path to feeling the today-ness in the ancient acts and words is more creative: the actual creation of new modes of religiosity. Some of our oldest prayers, including the selichot prayers we are saying these days, and much of the High Holiday liturgy, were once new: added, during the middle ages, to the existing body of material. These beautiful, complicated poems, which sometimes challenge and frustrate us, were once brand new attempts to freshen up the High Holiday experience, to bring a new spiritual, intellectual, artistic and aesthetic sensibility to them. Whole movements – Chassidut, the Mussar Movement, Religious Zionism, even the modern Haredi movement – were responses to the sense of the oldness of existing modes of Jewish life and a desire to make it new and relevant for today.
Currently, various changes have been made by some in the ways women are involved with the synagogue and the Bet Midrash. These changes are ways to make the synagogue experience new and more relevant for today. The use of English in prayer – the Art Scroll phenomenon – is another example of making the old prayers new.
For the New Year, I want to wish us all success in making it new. Making it fresh. Making it happen today. Whether we are interested in discovering how to approach the old in creative and meaningful ways, or want to actually invent new modes and expressions of religious life and practice, we need to make the efforts necessary to live up to Moshe’s challenge to make it be all about today – not a tradition, not a museum piece, not a memory. Rather, a living, breathing new thing, something that today, just this minute came into the world.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova,
Rabbi Shimon Felix