- Posted by Ronne Friedman
- On September 11, 2015
- 0 Comments
Atem Nitzavim: Mishkan HaNefesh’s Successful Navigation of Di-polar Theological Themes
At the beginning of the summer, at a meeting of our clergy staff, we agreed that we would devote the month of Elul to an introduction to and exploration of our new Machzor, our new High Holy Day Prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh. The word Mishkan is translated as tabernacle or sanctuary, its root implies the quality of something inherent in our midst, both in the individual and in the collective sense. Nefesh is most often translated as “the soul,” our word for the intangible quality of spiritual differentiation, the quality that humanizes our humanness.
In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, Moses addresses the Israelites for the final time. He insists that the Torah that he has brought to them is easily accessed, that the teaching is clear and uncomplicated, the theology simple and clear:
Ki hamitzvah hazot asher anochi m’tzav’cha hayom, lo nifleit hi mim’cha, v’lo r’hokah hi, for the Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. Lo bashamayim hi, leimor, mi ya’aleh lanu hashamayimah, vayikacheha lanu v’yashmieinu otah, v’na’aseina. It is not in the heavens that you should say, who will go up to the heavens for us to get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it? V’lo mei-eiver hayam hi leimor, mi ya’avar lanu el eiver hayam vay’kacheha lanu v’yashmieinu otah v’na’aseinah? And it is not across the sea, that you might say, “who shall cross the sea for us, and get it for us, that we might we may observe it. Ki karov eilecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha, u bilvav’cha la’asoto. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
Indeed, it is simple and straightforward here: Good and evil, life and death.
Obey and live, ignore and die, but this parasha, read also on the morning of Yom Kippur has flown in the face of empirical evidence since the end of the Biblical period. Since the beginning of the rabbinic period, the binary propositions of good and evil, life and death have been subjected to intense examination by generations of Jews. For more than two thousand years, we’ve challenged the dichotomy that this text sets up and we’ve sought to challenge and interpret it in each subsequent generation in ways that are consistent with the culture, the circumstances, the theology and the science of each moment of Jewish history.
In a sense, the Machzor, the High Holy Day Prayerbook, is a record of our responses over time as we have attempted to personalize the messages of the Torah, to digest the lessons of Jewish history, to discover new metaphors and mythologies, new rationales and reasonings that might bespeak our relationships to one another, to the cosmos and to the Divine.
The success of our new Machzor, and I truly believe that you will join me in appreciation for it as you become more and more familiar with it, is that it manages so many of the dipolarities of Jewish life, allowing us to hold theological ideas that are in tension with one another as it reverences the interplay between opposites.
I want to turn to two such dipolarities and to illustrate the dexterity of this Machzor through examples of each:
The first pair is Theological—the tension between immanence and transcendence. By immanence, we refer to God’s nearness, a sense of intimacy between the divine and human; by transcendence, we speak of a more cosmic image of God, one whose greatness fills us with awe, but does not allow for easy access.
The first example is discovered in the Meditations that precede the Yom Kippur Evening service. It is written by the great contemporary Talmudic master, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:
Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind. The feeling of “behold, I’ve arrived” could well undermine the capacity to continue, suggesting as it does that the infinite can be reached in a finite number of steps. In fact, the very concept of the Divine as infinite implies an activity that is endless, of which one must never grow weary. At every rung of [the] ascent, the penitent, like any person who flows the way of God, perceives mainly the remoteness. Only in looking back can one obtain some idea of the distance already covered, of the degree of progress. Repentance does not bring a sense of serenity or of completion but stimulates a reaching out in further effort.
Steinsaltz identifies the distance between our smaller selves and the Infinite nature of God and imagines that the great gulf between each of us and the Infinite is purposive, i.e., that God’s “remoteness” inspires us to climb higher and higher in a never-ending quest for the Divine.
The next example is intended as a poetic counterweight to the Al Chet section of the YK evening Confessional. The Machzor moves us from recitation of our sins to the inspirational examples of the best of human behavior and describes these acts of repair as examples of the way “we bring you (God) into the world.
For Acts of Healing and Repair
The refrain, Al HaTikkun SheTikanu Lifanecha, for the Repair that we have repaired for You, is meant as a counterpoint to the Al Chet, a recognition of human value, of the partnership between God and humanity.
You’ll note in the first full sentence of this contemporary prayer that the focus is upon an immanent God, one who may be brought into the world, the immediate inspiration for our acts of repair whose intimate relationship is a reward for our positive moral behaviors.
God, our Creator and Guide,
Let us speak now of the healing acts by which we bring You into the world,
The acts of repair that make You a living presence in our lives
For the act of healing we have done openly or anonymously
And for the act of repair we have done without personal gain
For the act of healing we have done by seeing forgiveness
And for the act of repair we have done by opening our hearts
For the act of healing we have done through righteous giving
And for the act of repair we have done by opening our hearts
For the act of healing we have done by comforting the mourner and visiting the sick; and for the act of repair we have done by pursuing justice and human rights, fairness and civility
For the act of healing we have done by making peace between one person and another; and for the act of repair we have done by protecting nature and all its creatures
For the act of healing we have done by teaching our children the ways of peace; and for the act of repair we have done by teaching our children the ways of Torah.
For the act of healing we have done by honoring elders and loving the stranger; and for the act of repair we have done in response to Your commandment: choose life and blessing
And all these bring nearer the day when You shall be One and Your name shall be One.
The second dipolarity is Sociological/Historical. Our Machzor navigates the emphasis upon our relationship to both Past and Future in a myriad of ways. Memory and Reverence are constant reminders of our responsibility to carry the past with us, Aspiration and Hope are interwoven into the Machzor to remind us of our obligation to the future.
Consider this poem of the American-Jewish poet, Charles Reznikoff
I went to my grandfather’s to say good-bye:
I was going away to a school out West.
As I came in,
My grandfather turned from the window at which he sat
(sick, skin yellow, eyes bleary –
but his hair still dark,
for my grandfather had hardly any grey hair in his beard or on his head –
he would sit at the window, reading a Hebrew book).
He rose with difficulty –
he had been expecting me, it seemed –
stretched out his hands and blessed me in a loud voice:
in Hebrew, of course,
and I did not know what he was saying,
When he had blessed me,
my grandfather turned aside and burst into tears.
“it’s only for a little while, Grandpa, “ I said
In my broken Yiddish. “I’ll be back in June.”
(By June my grandfather was dead.)
He did not answer.
Perhaps my grandfather was in tears for other reasons:
perhaps, because, in spite of all the learning I had acquired in high school,
I knew not a word of the sacred text of the Torah
and was going out into the world
with none of the accumulated wisdom of my people to guide me,
with no prayers with which to talk to the God of my people,
a soul –
for it is not easy to be a Jew or, perhaps, a man –
doomed by his ignorance to stumble and blunder.
Reznikoff’s words remind us that our relationship with the past is a complicated piece of the self-identity with which we grapple. In his own way, Reznikoff has contemporized the classical idea of “z’chut avot, the merit of our fathers,” an idea that is juxtaposed against the diminution of succeeding generations who, confessing themselves as unworthy, laid their case for forgiveness upon the merits of their ancestors.
The most brilliant modern Hebrew poet, Yehudah Amichai is the source for the next example of our commitment to the future with this poem: “On the
This setting is found in the interpretive addition of 15 Ascending Steps of Holiness in the afternoon Avodah service. This Machzor offers fifteen ascending steps of holiness which are intended to mirror the fifteen steps that Levites walked to perform their service at the Temple in Jerusalem. These steps were thought to be accompanied by the fifteen Psalms of Ascent.
This creative section intends to offer a mythic pilgrimage of our journey on Yom Kippur, to see the day as a microcosm of our quest for the holy, rooting it in the first step, our awareness of the Holiness of God and culminating with the fifteenth step, which speaks of our opportunity to conceive of ourselves as “Vessels of Holiness.” Amichai’s poem is included as a setting for the 13th step, entitled, “The Holiness of Children, the Holiness of Hope.”
Day My Daughter Was Born
On the day my daughter was born no one
In the hospital died. So at the gate
a sign was posted “Kohanim may enter today.”
And it was the longest day of the year.
So great was my joy that
off I went with my good friend to the hills of Shaar HaGai.
We saw a bare and sickly pine tree covered only with countless cones.
And Zvi said that trees on the verge of death yield more pine cones than
the living. And I said to him: that was a poem – and you did not know it.
Although you are a man of the exact sciences, you made a poem. And he responded:
And you, although you are a man of dreams – you made an exact little girl with all the exact machinery for her life.
As we enter these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we will recapitulate the words of parashat Nitzavim, for we will be standing, seeking to discern the messages of the prayers and teaching bequeathed to us.
The standard by which this Machzor will be judged, the means by which its success may be gauged, will in the end, depend on whether it offers the opportunity for the diverse Jews who open it, to discover each in his or her own way, a sanctuary in which there is room for his and her soul to sing. We hope that the harmonies of ancient melody and innovative composition will intertwine, that whether we seek an intimate relationship with the immanent or rejoice in the majesty of the transcendent, that the sweetness of our tradition will be revealed.
In wishing you a Shana Tova, it is our prayer that as you enter this Mishkan HaNefesh with us, that your melody and the harmony of our collective voices will soar and carry all of us through the rest of 5776.