Rabbi Cohen’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5776 “Entering the Tabernacle of our Soul through Prayer”

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776
September 13, 2015
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Entering the Tabernacle of our Soul through Prayer


Welcome home! It’s been a long journey over the past 18 months. And just two weeks ago, we gathered together to return our Torah scrolls to the ark and dedicate this sanctuary space once again.

There is much that is familiar: The ark remains the same and has been beautifully restored. We recognize the same layout of our sanctuary and social hall with placement of the pews and the gentle slope in the sanctuary allowing us to climb up toward the ark, making aliyah. And the words da lifnei m’atah omeid, Know before whom you stand, still adorn the front of our sanctuary.

There are also many new elements. Tomorrow morning you will see how natural light bathes the sanctuary allowing many colors to dance as the sun moves across the sky and washes over the ark. The walls are lighter as the Jerusalem stone on the eastern wall give a golden glow reflecting Yerushalayim shel zahav, Jerusalem, a city of gold. While the Jerusalem stone and windows, from which the story I will share on Kol Nidrei, have replaced the memorial wall that entered our sanctuary 7 years ago, know that the memorial wall will soon be in the gallery off of the Living Room and near the meditation garden. This new space will allow for contemplation and reflection about our loved ones and also a centering meditative space.

This space has gone through many evolutions since it was first dedicated in 1964, and some in this room have experienced them all, while for others, today is the only way they know this space to exist. Space and spiritual practice are meant to evolve – we know that nothing stays the same.

Tonight, we introduce another piece of evolution, and that is the machzor, the High Holy prayer book. Tonight, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of a new year, we not only welcome one another into a new space, we welcome ourselves in through a new text.

Change can be challenging, but sometimes the challenge is good, especially this time of year when we are called upon to reflect on our lives and challenge ourselves about where we have been and where we hope to go. The High Holy Days are not supposed to be easy. If they were, then would we feel motivated to reflect on our past year and challenge ourselves to be better or push ourselves toward greater goals to strengthen our world? If the High Holy Days were just about going through the motions, then why should we even bother? The High Holy Days are meant to push us beyond our comfort zone. They are not about the sermons, or the music, but they are about making space for each of us to open our hearts to the grace that makes spiritual transformation possible. What are the tools that help us make this spiritual transformation possible? It is our text, the machzor, and what we do with that text. And it is not just taking this text and only reading the words on the page; it is taking these words, thoughts, ideas, and either finding comfort or feeling challenged by them because they might make us just a bit uncomfortable – uncomfortable enough that we take notice. And at the same time, we are comforted by the idea that the words have meaning.

We find comfort in repetition when it is familiar. However, we become less comfortable in liturgy and prayer when we wrestle with the meaning of the words, the structure of the service, and even with our own personal relationship with God. Many may not engage in Shabbat liturgy, speak to God on mountaintops, or sit with other Jews to wrestle with who, or what, or where, or how, God exists. And when we don’t, we limit God. Being challenged about God happens so often at camp and through youth programming. And it is important that our children not only participate in this experience when they are 13 and become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. It goes beyond that, and yes, this is my plug to each and every family to gift your child the gift of Jewish camping, encourage them to participate in youth groups, and remember that becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah is not the end, but only the gateway to a long Jewish life.

The machzor or Shabbat prayer book, becomes the only source from which many interact with God. How many are in this room tonight who have not stepped into services either at all since last High Holy Days or only a few times to celebrate a special event? I’m not asking you to raise your hands, this is your own cheshbon hanefesh – soul check-in, as well as a reality test for us as a community. We might be proficient in many other areas of Jewish community, such as our social action work or cultural participation, but are we theologically paralyzed?

This problem is not something new. This is something that each generation faces in one-way or another. And how strange it is that we provide the most challenging of liturgies on the High Holy Days, during a time that, reality speaking may be the only time some in our community ever attend services. It’s almost a bad trick that we play – ‘welcome to the High Holy Days, so glad you are here, and now, let us throw at you the most complicated liturgy of the year!’ No wonder some people don’t return till the next year.

Hayim Nachman Bialik says:

“We construct barriers: words upon words and systems upon systems, and place them in front of the darkness to conceal it; but then our nails immediately begin to dig at those barriers, in an attempt to open the smallest of windows, the tiniest of cracks, through which we may gaze for a single moment at that which is on the other side.”

How did we get here? As we enter into this new mishkan, this new tabernacle of prayer and of our souls, what was the road that led us to this moment?

The prayer book, first and foremost, is a compilation over many centuries. It is the work of human beings who in many cases were responding to the issues of their time. Our own Reform prayer books are no different.

Even before the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an arm of the Union for Reform Judaism, for which we are a part of as a congregation, was established in 1889, decisions were made regarding Reform liturgy. For example, Kol Nidrei, what we would consider an absolute “must have”, was not recited, nor was the shofar sounded in the early days of the Reform movement. The Union Prayer Book I was published in 1892 and was based on the 1874 Minhag America, published by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Classical Reform theology held the belief in the coming of a messianic age and introduced the belief that Israel is to be a priest people, pure in spirit, dedicated to bringing the nations to God’s service.

However, Rabbi David Einhorn sought to implement greater changes and the prayer book was recalled at a significant cost to the Conference. The Union Prayer Book II, was published in 1895 by Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, another great leader in our Reform movement, and was based on new visions that fit our Reform movement for the day. While the words of Kol Nidrei were not included in the text, the music was integrated with a different hymn that was more palpable to the Jewish community in American in the late 1800s. It was not until 1930 that the words were reintroduced into the hymnal and hence, into the service. And even the shofar was reintroduced in an unorthodox manner – the Reform movement sold shofarot with metal mouth pieces in the hopes of making them easier to play so that they would be sounded in congregations.

The Union Prayer Book I and II went through a revision after World War II but no one seemed happy with the text. In the 1960s, the language in the prayer books started to be challenged especially because of other religious movements. The Protestants eliminated the archaic English in their prayer books and Bible translations, and Reform Jews began to grow restless with language that distanced people from God rather than drawing them close. It was not until 1978 that the Gates of Repentance, the new High Holy Day prayer book, would be published. Liturgy that had been eliminated for over 100 years was finally officially reintroduced, from the full version of the Kol Nidrei to bringing the once buried Unataneh Tokef out from Yom Kippur afternoon to being featured throughout. And in 1996, a new gender sensitive edition made it’s debut, however, transliteration of the Hebrew still remained buried in the back of the book and were not available for all the prayers.

Here we are, 37 years later, holding a new machzor, a new prayer book for the High Holy Days. We open it with excitement and trepidation; excitement in the hope of finding prayers and readings that is meaningful today and in words that are relevant to our very lives. There is trepidation because we are stepping out of our comfort zone. Trust me, Cantor Reinwald and I are out of our comfort zone. These past years, preparation for the liturgical aspects of the High Holy Days were simple, even a bit on auto-pilot as all of our cues were marked the same way year after year. It did not take much thought. But this year, we’ve had to immerse ourselves in this new prayer book and decide what spiritual journey do we hope to take the congregation on? What is the mishkan, the tabernacle we hope to build and create for all to enter?

The many editors of Mishkan HaNefesh hoped to create a prayer book for “members of a dynamic, ever changing, and diverse Reform Movement who gather in community to experience awe and forgiveness and hope, as well as all others who seek to find a spiritual home in the prayer book.” Mishkan HaNefesh opens the possibility of dealing with the tension between the historical theology of the High Holy Days, God as sovereign and judge, and bring together contemporary beliefs, including the theology of human empowerment. It values continuity and incorporates the outlook of the twenty-first century Reform Jewish community of North America.

The vision of our new prayer book is to provide meaningful prayer experiences for those who do pray regularly as well as welcome those who are new to Jewish practice. It takes us on a journey of reflection of our year, to t’shuvah and cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls. Rabbi Edwin Goldberg states, “The machzor is a guide to building to a climax where painful truths are realized, change is considered and adopted, and the individual leaves with a plan for self-improvement. Hopefully, we end up in a different place on Yom Kippur than where we began on Rosh Hashanah.”

The words in a prayer book can be challenging in both language and interpretation. While our primary language is English, there is something to be said for the poetic tone and rhythm of hearing it in Hebrew. The Shema would not feel the same if only sung in English. Rabbi Rick Sarason says, “Reading poetry in translation has famously been likened to kissing your bride through the veil: something inevitably gets lost.” English is a secular language and does not seem holy, so we must find the balance between using Hebrew and creating meaningful translations of the Hebrew prayer. These translations found within the prayer book are meant to match idea for idea, feeling for feeling, instead of word for word. In doing so, we also recognize that we don’t necessarily take the words literally. Consider the Unataneh Tokef, who shall live and who shall die? As contemporary Jews, we know that the words are poetry and metaphor. Rabbi Lawrence Kuschner states, “The language of prayer is designed to scramble language, mess with our brains, take us to rationality’s edge, and then give us a push.” It is meant to capture a feeling we only barely knew was there as we are woven into the words created by someone else.

Prayer is designed for the community and the individual. We join together as a community to share in the words and melodies, but it is the responsibility of each individual to seek meaning and understanding. While we join in communal worship, as we enter into Mishkan HaNefesh, we are given the opportunity to also be on a personal journey throughout the services. I encourage you, get lost in the prayer book. We will always call out which page we are on so that you can reenter when you’re ready. The service is designed for you to experience it at your own pace. Feel free to focus on the commentary, stay with a complex poem, read one of the many essays on the blue pages, contemplate the meaning of the artwork scattered throughout.

Our High Holy Day worship is a time for each person to be on a personal spiritual quest all within this holy space of community. Rabbi Elaine Zecher, the lead editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, says, “Each year, the machzor, invites us to plummet the depths of our souls, to be lost in the search, and then to find our way back.”

How will you experience the High Holy Days this year? In what ways will you take the opportunity to get lost in prayer and thought? How will you create a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of your soul in which you examine your acts, deeds, and thoughts? How will we help ourselves return to our sacred path, in a world that continually seduces us away from the work we must do, and how will each of us, as individuals and as a community, create change in order to improve our lives and our world?

Mishkan HaNefesh, the services themselves, these are only tools – the real work begins within each individual. It is not easy work – it should be challenging, it should even be uncomfortable at times – but it is worthwhile work if we fully engage ourselves and not just wait for someone else to do it for us or just be on autopilot because it is what we know.

As we open these prayer books let us all declare, hineini, here I am! I am ready to accept the challenges and the blessings of the work of growing my heart and soul, and may our prayers transcend us to this time of new beginnings and new blessings.


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