Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Rosh Hashanah Comments to the Congregation

Each year, I share some thoughts -- and explanations of some of the prayers and music -- with the congregation.  Printed and placed in their prayer books (machzorim) along with announcements about synagogue activities.  Here's what's in their for Rosh Hashanah 5777

Rosh Hashanah Thoughts from Cantor Chomsky. . .

We gather again.

Thank you, Tifereth Israel, for the amazing opportunity you provided Susan and me for growth and exploration this last year -- as we took a 4-month sojourn in Asia.

On our two previous sabbaticals, we spent the time in Israel.  We still love Israel, of course, and visit as often as possible, especially with our daughter and son-in-law now living there.  But it seemed like the challenge of going somewhere very different was a good idea.

We experienced the life of outsiders--people very obviously different from most of the people in our adopted neighborhood. First, two months headquartered in Hanoi.  Then, a month in India, and finally a trip to parts of Japan.  We stuck out. Big time.  From a Jewish perspective, we either made Jewish life by ourselves or, occasionally, joined with the few Jews in our "chosen" outpost, whether it was Hanoi, Delhi, Tokyo or elsewhere.

So many people in the Jewish world say they feel like outsiders when they come to synagogue on the High Holidays.  So our experience as outsiders had special meaning that I hope is relevant this fall.  I hope that the writings below, about the music and liturgy, and our inviting machzor, will help you feel like insiders!

As I wrote these words, I was on my way back to Columbus from attending the funeral of Uncle Joe Chomsky--my father's brother--closing a chapter in my pre-Columbus life, having stood today at the graves of my grandparents, and of quite a few of the mysterious old people of my youth, those folks with the “heksents.”

I know that many of you must have stood at these crossroads, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that.  Please share these with me and others during the Days of Awe.  Talk to me in person, but feel free also to write me at  I’m also thinking about when my children will have the feeling that I did today – and when my grandchildren will stand at such a crossroads.

As we gather together this Rosh Hashanah, are we moving toward creating a rich Jewish future for our children and grandchildren?  Does Jewish matter?  How alienated do we feel from our own religious tradition and culture?

We’ll be spending some hours together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We’ll be using a book that is filled with generations’ heartfelt expression about the meaning of life and relation to God.  But the book is largely in code.  And the music is in code.  We can easily find contemporary expressions about life’s meaning – but someday these will be a hard-to-decipher code for future generations, so investing time, thought and energy in deciphering our own ancient code seems like a good choice.

Open your heart.  Take a little more time when you greet your friends to really hear what they’re telling you about their lives.  Let your heart break open to acknowledge where you struggle and to empathize with the struggle of your neighbor.  Listen for how this is exemplified in the words and melodies of our prayers. 

The Music and Liturgy of Rosh Hashanah [page references are in Mahzor Lev Shalem.]

Evening Service:   The formal beginning of the evening service (Maa’riv), Barchu (p. 5), introduces the majestic and elegant nusach melody that will be heard up to the Amidah and in the Kiddush—and on Kol Nidrei as well.  (Nusach refers to the melodies and musical modes customary to our liturgy.  Its roots go back over a millennium, though many traditional melodies are “merely” a few hundred years old.)

The words and prayers of this service are much like any daily evening service.  The main differences are found in the Kedushat Hashem (Sanctification of God’s name – an extended form of Atah Kadosh, p. 13)  and Kedushat Hayom (Sanctification of the Day, pp.14-15).  These paragraphs, from Uv’chein Tein Pachd’cha through M’loch al kol ha’olam (p. 42), will be recited each Amidah on Rosh Hashanah.  Our machzur will guide you– giving explanations of the prayers in the right margins – and inspiration in the left margins.  When you find something that inspires, be sure to share it.

Morning Service
The sh’liach tzibbur (service leader, literally “messenger of the community”) begins at different times on different occasions – Yishtabach on weekdays, Shochein Ad on Shabbat, Ha-el on Festivals, and Hamelech (p. 69) on the High Holidays.  Hamelech means “the King” – and this is the aspect of God (who we describe in many ways with many names) that is central to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). 

The Shacharit prayers are similar to those of weekdays and Shabbat – but some of the melodies are of quite different character. 

On  page 81, Misod embodies what might be the central musical motif of high holiday davening.  L’el oreich din (p. 85) particularly brings home the judgment theme and in a sense serves as a Shacharit pre-echo of the awesome Un’taneh Tokef prayer of the Musaph service.

Following the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah, the Shacharit service reaches a new height with the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu

The music for the Torah Service (p. 96) includes many familiar melodies in their original form: choral works.  These works became so popular throughout Europe (having been introduced in the magnificent synagogues in Berlin and Vienna) that their melodies achieved MiSinai status among Ashkenazic congregations, though they date “only” to the 19th century.  (MiSinai means, literally, “from Sinai” – but figuratively, ancient melodies.  Many of our high holiday MiSinai melodies date to Ashkenazic Jewish practice in Germany as far back as the 11th century!)

When we return the Torah to the Ark, the words are the same as the rest of the year, but we should try to create and experience a special sense of holiness, awe and glory together because this day has added holiness.

The Musaph (Additional) Service begins with the plaintive Hatzi Kaddish followed by the recitation of the Silent Amidah.  The Musaph service is at heart just a big (really, really big) Amidah.  The first pass through – the silent Amidah—includes three lengthy compendia of biblical references to Malchuyot (sovereignty), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot (shofar soundings). 

Un’taneh Tokef, which includes B’rosh Hashanah (pp. 282-284), is the dramatic high point of the Musaph liturgy.  Its stirring imagery of God sitting in judgment before us contrasts the loud, clarion call of the shofar with the hearing of a “still small voice.”  It paints a pastoral picture of sheep passing before their Shepherd Who determines who shall live and who shall die (and how).  Along with this comes the statement that God waits for us to repent until the final moment, that we are like dust, that we pass away like a dream. 

The gorgeous B’rosh Hashanah (315) by Meir Finkelstein will be sung again with Gabrielle Cohen, Halley Dunn, Marissa Madison, Allison Meyer.

Close your eyes a bit during Musaph, during the shofar sounding and at other times, and picture yourself among hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered, in a spiritual sense, in Jerusalem.  Picture also Jews all around the world having such similar experiences today – thousands of years after this conversation began.  Make a promise to connect to this unique and glorious partnership—day by day, phrase by phrase, act of kindness by act of kindness, and act of righteousness by act of righteousness—from generation to generation.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year—
Cantor Jack Chomsky

2015 HIGH HOLIDAY CHOIR:  Allan Finkelstein, Conductor; Ted Borkan, Bob Borman, Gabrielle Cohen, Lori Cohen, Jeff Covel,  Bradley Goldman, Shelly Kitain, Michelle Levin, Alice Levitin, Jan Lyddon,  Sandy Mentser, Amy Nathans, Diane Peters, Mike Price, Katya Rouzina, Scott Spira, Martha Tepper (also accompanist), and Randy Zacks.