(Sept. 19) — DURING THE LAST half-hour or so of Yom Kippur, until the Ark is closed, those whose heart so moves them can come up to the Ark for a few moments, to offer a quiet personal prayer.
If you feel moved to come up, please do so — either as an individual, or together with someone who matters to you. (In deference to others who may be waiting, please don’t linger in front of the Ark for too long.)
Ne’ilah Service: The Last Stand
(Sept. 19) — TOWARD THE END of Yom Kippur, as the sun gets low in the sky, our rabbinic tradition expects us to up the ante: Beginning with our final communal elaboration of Amidah themes, the ark stays open until the end of the Neilah (“Locking the Gates”) Service. Therefore it is customary to remain standing — out of respect for the Torah as a symbol of the divine Presence — for the rest of the service, until the Ark is closed again.
Whether you yourself remain standing or not is up to you. Perhaps see if you can rise to the occasion!
(Sept. 19) — THE TECHNICAL NAME for the Yizkor (Memorial) service is Hazkarat N’shamot (“Mentioning of [Individual] Souls”). At the TJC, this collection of prayers is one of the highlights of our communal Yom Kippur experience. As in past years, it will consist of the following four parts:
- You take a turn sharing a reminiscence of the person(s) whom you are memorializing. As you do so, you pick out one of the small stones provided and set it atop a symbolic gravestone, emulating the Jewish custom of leaving such a stone when visiting a person’s grave.
- You recite individually the paragraph that begins with the word Yizkor: “May [God] remember...,” with a particular individual in mind. (It is from this principal prayer that the Yizkor service got it usual name.) As noted in this paragraph, mourners traditionally pledge a tzedakah contribution or an act of service, to honor the memory of their loved one. Our book prints this prayer in several parallel forms, in which the wording differs slightly. Pick the one that matches your own relationship to the deceased.
- The leader chants the El Malei Rachamim. This prayer asks that the souls of all our departed “rest in peace.”
- We recite the Mourner’s Kaddish aloud together.
(Sept. 19) — TRADITIONALLY, the Avodah Service recounts the ancient procedure (described in the Mishnah) that took place in the Jerusalem Temple each year on Yom Kippur: the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, in order to effect ritual purification there.
Today each of us is the high priest of our own inner sanctum. We’re responsible for our own personal purification. Meanwhile, we try to support each other in completing that process.
In that spirit, for the 6th year in a row, our Avodah Service affords individuals with an opportunity to bring an offering to share with the community. By an “offering,” I mean a song, poem, chant, story, or the like. Each offering should be intended to assist all of us in our personal inner purification.
If you have something to offer us, please let me know before our hour-long service begins. (It is the first service after our afternoon break, preceding the Yizkor Service.)
The Mystery of Kol Nidrei
(Sept. 19) — KOL NIDREI HAS ALWAYS been a controversial declaration. Why should anyone be relieved of responsibility for one’s promises?
Here is my understanding: Kol Nidrei nullifies only the following vows:
- made impulsively to ourselves; and
- for the purpose of self-discipline, spiritual achievement, or religious commitment.
The court has no power to dissolve our other obligations. The promises at issue must be only those that we break because, although we do not realize it at the time, what you express with our words is only a wish — not a true, affirmative decision.
But why annul vows in advance? Because we might be so worried about failure to change that we will not dare to try. Our declaration of Kol Nidrei suggests that it may be better to try even if we will fail, than not to try at all.
Lighting a Memorial Candle
(Sept. 19) — TRADITIONALLY, Yom Kippur is (among other things) a time of remembering one’s ancestors. Just prior to the start of the holy day, as deceased loved ones come to mind, it has been a thousand-year-long tradition to light a 25-hour memorial lamp or candle at home. A verse in the book of Proverbs (20:27) has been translated to allude to this custom: “The human soul is the lamp of God.”
While lighting a memorial candle, no specific ritual is prescribed. Let me suggest that you say the following: “May so-and-so’s memory be a blessing!”
And even if the candle is still burning after Yom Kippur is over, the custom has been to let it keep burning — until it goes out by itself.
Wearing White on Yom Kippur
(Sept. 19) — ON YOM KIPPUR, some people [both men and women] are accustomed to dress in white—like the angels on high. Thus they wear a kittel (caftan or surplice) because it is white. It is also the clothing of the dead—and by wearing such, a person’s heart is humbled and broken open.
—Rabbi Moses Isserles (Crakow, Poland; 1570), gloss to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim § 610.4
(Sept. 12) — MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz and I were students together at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Now, as president of that institution, he continues to say insightful things. This week, he shared a poignant message in this video (2:20). He cites a famous violinist.
(Sept. 11) — TO BRUSH UP on the Mourner’s Kaddish in time for the High Holy Days (especially the Yizkor Service), you can listen to this recording of me reciting it.
You can also find the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish online.
(Sept. 11) — WHAT DOES prayer have to do with healing and repentance? Anyway, how can we pray if we are interrupted by distractions? According to the masters of Jewish prayer, true prayer sees distracting thoughts as an integral part of the prayer experience. It’s all about resolving apparent conflicts at a higher level. Here is a handy one-page summary.
(Sept. 11) — LIKE STRETCHING OUT before physical activity, taking the time to get ready to pray can make a huge difference. During worship, we can be more present and more responsive; and we are less likely to pull a spiritual muscle.
Accordingly, the first 20 minutes or so of our morning worship services incorporates both expressions of gratitude and songs that are designed to help us get ready. True, not everybody feels like singing at 9:15 a.m., so I may tell a story or two. And I have asked the choir to lead us in some of the delicious music that they have been working on.
(Aug. 29) — A TAOS TRADITION is rekindled whenever TJC member Naomi Hannah
shares her compelling voice and guitar accompaniment with us.
On Rosh Hashanah, Ms Hannah will help us to elaborate on the central themes of the morning Amidah. On Yom Kippur, she will lead us in classic hymns throughout the day, especially during the Avodah service.
Come and be part of the ascending spiral, as she takes us to a higher level.
(Aug. 29) — BEFORE THE TORAH is read aloud on the 2nd day of Rosh ha-Shanah, author and TJC member Mirabai Starr will address us on the Torah portion: “What Does the Binding of Isaac Teach Us About the God of Love?”
As you may know, Ms Starr has recently returned to Taos from a book tour for her newly published God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. [IMAGE adapted from a photo by Robbie Steinbach]
(Aug. 29) — WE WILL PERFORM the Casting Away ritual on the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah, at 2 p.m., at a pond that’s fed by springs on Taos Mountain. This is in accord with the scriptural verse (Micah 7:19): “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” We act this out so that God can act through us.
During the traditional Tashlikh ritual, Jews shake out the hems of their clothing and pockets 3 times, symbolizing that we are putting our attention on becoming clean of all sin. No need to add breadcrusts or crumbs to what already happens to be in your pockets. It’s fine to throw imaginary objects into the watershed.
“Our hope is that if sinners say to themselves, ‘I will not repeat my sin,’ they can let that sin, like the water, move on.” —Sefer ha-Chaim (Germany, 13th century).
[PAINTING at Ft. Burgwin by Carolyn Rekerdres (2009)]
(Aug. 29) — HAPPILY, our High Holy Day liturgy includes many opportunities for congregational singing.
The spiritual importance of singing cannot be underestimated. As Rabindranath Tagore once said, “God respects me when I work, but loves me when I sing.”
(Aug. 29) — HERE IS what I have been preparing (subject to further developments):
Rosh ha-Shanah Evening (opening): “Opening Your Eyes: A Midrash” (What being Jewish means)
Rosh ha-Shanah Evening (closing): “Who Takes Precedence: A Fable” (Toward getting back on track)
Rosh ha-Shanah, 1st Day: “Repairing Relationships: Lessons from Abraham and Abimelech” (On willingly having that difficult conversation with you-know-who)
Rosh ha-Shanah, 2nd Day: Discussion on the Binding of Isaac (Where is the love?)
Yom Kippur Night: “Free Spirits and Soul Whisperers, Part 1” (A true contemporary story about getting back on track)
Yom Kippur Noon: “Free Spirits and Soul Whisperers, Part 2” (True 16th-century stories about getting back on track)
Yom Kippur Afternoon: “A Prophet Walks into a Bar: The Book of Jonah as Comedy” (Why read this tale on Yom Kippur?)
(Aug. 19) — OCCASIONALLY I AM ASKED: What’s the hardest part about leading High Holy Day services? Is it mastering all that Hebrew? Is it writing the sermons? Is it fasting on Yom Kippur?
Frankly, the hardest part for me is leading a group whose members arrive and leave at various times throughout the services.
How so? Well, imagine being the leader of a spirituality workshop where at any given time, half the group is absent. You strive to set the tone, develop a theme, explain what’s going to happen, and so forth. But most attendees never know most of what you announced or did, because they arrived late or left early.
Imagine being the teacher of a class where at any given time, half the students are on the playground, and the class’s members are constantly shifting in and out of the room. How can you build upon what you covered yesterday — or even 20 minutes ago?
Imagine being the director of a play whose actors don’t feel obliged to attend the entire performance. You and other actors are depending upon their presence. Just so, during worship services, our collective soul is the star of the show, so showing up and being present (with an open heart) makes a huge difference.
Woody Allen once wrote, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” That fits this situation well. Give this enterprise a chance. Show up — and we can accomplish wonderful things together!
God doesn’t need these prayers; it’s us humans who do.
(Aug. 19) — PLANS ARE AFOOT for holding a special ceremony this year: to invoke the Priestly Blessing. This is an ancient formula that, according to the Torah (Numbers 6:24–26), was ordained by God for the blessing of Israel. Priests while reciting this blessing become channels of the divine spirit, conveying blessing to the Jewish people.
Traditionally, the Priestly Blessing is invoked in a solemn ceremony within a communal worship service on certain occasions, most prominently during the High Holy Days.
The priests (that is, everyone whose biological father was born a priest) prepare for this ceremony in 5 steps: they remove their shoes; they rinse their hands with the assistance of Levites; they ascend the platform before the ark; they cover both their heads and their arms with a prayer shawl; and they extend their arms in front of them, holding their hands and fingers in a distinctive pattern. Then, after reciting a special benediction, the prayer leader quiety articulates the Priestly Blessing, which the priests intone aloud, word by word.
Meanwhile, those assembled are standing as they receive the blessing silently. (In many communities, parents hold their children close during this rite.) Customarily, they keep their eyes down, not looking directly at the priests while the Blessing is being transmitted. They respond “Amen” after each of the 3 sections of the Blessing.
The famous Blessing’s ancient imagery evokes monarchs who, after granting an audience, bestow various favors on their subjects and promises of friendship. May you merit such blessing from God in the new year!
ARTWORK: Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik
(Aug. 19) — “YOU NEED TO KNOW that one of the greatest remedies that the prophets picked for Israel was the practice of reading the Torah aloud.
“The Torah Scroll contains what was conveyed to us from the Blessed One so that we would dwell on it, and by such means divine illumination would be drawn to us.... For special occasions, according to their particular theme: it is appropriate that passages be read aloud that touch upon those themes, to strengthen the day’s illumination via the Torah’s power — which is the most potent source of spiritual power that we possess.”
—Derekh Ha-Shem (God’s Way) § 4.8:6 by Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto (Padua, Italy; ca. 1735); transl. by David E. S. Stein
(Aug. 19) — GOING UP TO THE TORAH for an aliyah can be a powerful experience. So perhaps you might appreciate some basic tips.
Steps to Success
- Know the meaning and purpose of an aliyah.
- Watch a training video. Rabbi David Paskin stars in a well-produced “how-to” video (7:15) in a Conservative setting (Temple Beth Abraham, Canton, MA): “Jewish Journeys: Participating in the Torah Service.” He covers the subject well!
- Memorize the Torah blessings; here are the words with melody (blessing before, and blessing after). (And here is a rendition with transliteration.)
(Aug. 19) — THE SHOFAR IS SOUNDED with 3 basic elements:
• T’kia (“blast”): 1 long blast with a clear tone.