Friday, October 7, 2016

Yom Kippur Thoughts

As I've noted before, I am blesseed with the opportunity to share some written thoughts, observations, inspirations -- and notes on tefillah (prayer) each year with the congregation.  Here's Yom Kippur 2016/5777

From Cantor Chomsky. . .

For Rosh Hashanah, I wrote to you about having stood out from others during our 4-month sojourn in Asia, and about seeing myself standing at my grandparents’ grave, looking to the past and wondering about the future.  And I invited you to share your crossroads experience – and to allow your heart to open wide to receive from others and share.

Little more than a week later, we have the opportunity to confront and acknowledge where we have failed—beginning by “absolving” ourselves of unfulfilled vows (whether in the year past or the year to come is a traditional philosophical and liturgical question), and then reciting litany after litany of alphabetical confessions—sometimes granular like the Ashamnu, and sometimes a little more poetic—like Al Cheit

Our Hebrew text names sins for each letter of the alphabet.  What are the shortcomings of your alphabet?

Our machzor often speaks of the huge chasm between us and the Perfect God and Creator.  And yet. . . once we have acknowledged where we have erred, when we conceive of a listening, hearing, caring God, we can reach. . . outward, forward, upward, inward.  What a gift is this ability to think, to hope, to care.  Yes, we feel pain for where we have failed—and for our suffering and the suffering of those who we care about.  But the ability to hope for more, to work for more, is something that no other creature (species) has. 

As Jews, we take that gift of the human spirit and add to it a sense of history—and a sense of two-way obligation.  We inherit this history, this Torah, this possibility of perfecting God’s world – tikun olam—and we demand that God redeem God’s promises when we fulfill ours. 

And what if we don’t believe?  I recall entering this conversation with a member of the congregation not long ago.  So I’m reminded to say something very clearly – Everyone in this room has doubt.  To think that you can’t have this conversation because you have doubt is to remove yourself from the most powerful aspect of Jewish living. 

I cannot promise you that if you live this year as if there is a God aware of your every thought and action that you will be cured of your doubt.  But I CAN promise that you will receive the gift of connection and salvation from the randomness of contemporary culture.  It is so easy to live life today as if it has no meaning.  But if you reach out, you will be connected.

Plan your day.  Pace yourself.  May you have a full Ya’aleh day (p. 223): This simple piyyut declares intentions for Evening, Dawn, and Dusk: From Voices to  Acts to Redemption; from Suffering to  Forgiveness to Purity.  Put another way – when you take a long, hot shower, you feel way better at the end than at the beginning.  Immerse yourself in our liturgy this Yom Kippur and feel the glow of your cleansed soul at the conclusion of the Holiday!

The Music and Liturgy of Yom Kippur

KOL NIDREI:  The paragraph of Kol Nidrei is a legal formula developed by the Rabbis which annuls only those vows which are made between humans and God.  Tradition suggests, for its three repetitions, 1st softly, like someone hesitating before entering the royal palace; the 2nd time, a bit more confidently; the 3rd time like someone who feels comfortable in the royal court and approaches the ruler like a friend.  This year, we’ll have the Choir begin.  Then I’ll recite alone.  Then it’s your turn with me!

After the Amidah comes the beautiful piyyut (poem) Yaaleh (223).  A reverse anacrostic, it describes poetically the emotional arc of the day (as mentioned in my intro above).  Prayers like Shomeia T’filah (224) and Han’shamah Lach (225) are based on special “Missinai” tunes – ancient melodies heard only with these texts at this special time.  Some may be 1000 years old.

SELIHOT AND VIDUI:  The penitential prayers (Selihot) along with the confessional (Vidui) are critical elements of our Yom Kippur davening.  The “high point” of these confessions are Ashamnu and Al Cheit, alphabetic acknowledgements of our individual or community sins for which it is customary to strike one’s heart.  When singing the catchy ay-ay-ay of Ashamnu, keep in mind that it’s not a happy tune:  In the tradition of Ashkenazic Jewish music, the major third (third note in the melody) is meant to imply our vulnerability, our rawness, and our emotional pain in the act of confession.  In contemporary American musical culture, it can convey exactly the opposite meaning and emotion.

YIZKOR: The Yizkor service (290) begins with the Choir singing Enosh by Louis Lewandowski.  This familiar text, which is not present in our Machzor, is taken from Psalm 103:  The days of mortals are as grass.  We flourish like a flower in the field.  The wind passes over it and it is gone, and none can even recognize where it grew.  But God’s compassion is from forever to forever for those who fear God; so is God’s righteousness to their children’s children. 

YOM  KIPPUR MUSAPH: The Yom Kippur Musaph is lengthy in a different way from the Rosh Hashanah Musaph.  On Rosh Hashanah, we had Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofrot, pages and pages of Torah, Prophets and Writings verses on the themes of God’s Sovereignty, Remembrance, and Shofar Soundings.  On Yom Kippur, the Musaph includes (in addition to the aforementioned selichot and vidui portions) a Martyrology service and the Avodah Service recalling the majesty of the ancient Temple.
As on Rosh Hashanah, the Musaph begins with the haunting Hatzi Kaddish (298), followed by the Silent Amidah (300), and Hin’ni (312), the cantor’s prayer for success in expressing the heart and minds of the congregation.  A highly dramatic and beautiful moment of the “early Musaph” is Un’taneh Tokef

The gorgeous B’rosh Hashanah (315) by Meir Finkelstein is sung with Gabrielle Cohen, Halley Dunn, Marissa Madison, Allison MeyerAfter the Great Alenu (325) comes the Avodah service (326) recalling the annual purification ritual by the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. We can see from this ritual that our ancestors had very clear ideas regarding how to physically atone for our sins.  Without a Temple, without the sacrificial cult described in the Torah, how do we physically atone?  Few of us would seek to reinitiate animal sacrice – but the question remains, and “going through the motions” of the ancient rite helps us to pose, if not answer the question. The MiSinai tune which is chanted to V’hakohanim (330, 331, 332) is one of our oldest melodies, quite mysterious and kind of hypnotic. 

MINCHAH:  The highlight of the Minchah service (361) is most likely its mind-boggling Haftarah (367) – the Book of Jonah.  Maftir Yonah will be chanted by some of our high school students, now a tradition.  As the afternoon deepens, we approach. . .

N’ILAH: The N’ilah service (392) provides us with our last opportunity to plead our cause in the spiritual marathon which is Yom Kippur.  The Sephardic hymn El Nora Alilah (407) is sung prior to the repetition of the N’ilah Amidah.

The melodies unique to the N’ilah service create a special sound picture to bind us to the conclusion of Yom Kippur in years past, whether in our lives or in those of our people over many hundreds of years.  The nusach melody of N’ilah is evocative of walking carefully forward as we prepare to leave the divine presence—as, indeed, the gates close before us.  Among the special melodies unique to N’ilah:   Sh’ma Na (410), P’tach Lanu Sha’ar (414), Enkat M’saldecha (416), and Rachem Na (419).  Passages on 421 and 422 are quite distinct from the “boilerplate” of the rest of Yom Kippur amidahs.  Who among us would not be moved by these two pages of liturgy, this last crying out for forgiveness?  We hope, of course, that God is also moved!

We conclude the day’s observances with the Ma’ariv weekday prayer (445), followed by Havdalah (459) and the affirmations (429) of Sh’ma (1x), Baruch Shem (3x), and Adonai Hu HaElohim (7x).  Followed of course by a t’kiah g’dolah and the chanting of Lashanah Haba-ah biY’rushalayim—next year in Jerusalem – and our break-fast, either here at Tifereth Israel, or in your home or that of friends.

G’mar chatimah tovah—may you have a good seal in the Book of Life for the coming year.

Cantor Jack Chomsky

2016 HIGH HOLIDAY CHOIR:  Allan Finkelstein, Conductor; Ted Borkan, Bob Borman, Gabrielle Cohen, Lori Cohen, Jeff Covel,  Bradley Goldman, Shelly Kitain, Alice Levitin, Jan Lyddon,  Rebecca Mentser, Sandy Mentser, Amy Nathans, Diane Peters, Mike Price, Katya Rouzina, Scott Spira, Martha Tepper (also accompanist), and Randy Zacks.