Introducing the Kehillah Minyan

For quite some time, Oheb Shalom Congregation has been talking about finding ways to make the experience of praying together more meaningful. To help meet this important need we are introducing a new Shabbat morning service—the Kehillah Minyan—beginning this Saturday, September 26. The Kehillah Minyan will meet eight times during year from 10:30 AM-12:00 PM and will be held in addition to our regular Shabbat morning service.

Our primary goal is to increase the net attendance on Shabbat mornings. While the Tefillah Committee has worked hard over the past year to enhance the traditional Shabbat morning service, we have not seen a significant increase in attendance. My hope is that the Kehillah Minyan will bring in new people, especially those who wish to connect to the richness of Jewish worship but find it difficult to do so in a traditional setting.

The Kehillah Minyan will follow the framework of a traditional Shabbat morning service that I will lead, but will not be bound by the particular liturgical traditions we have come to observe at Oheb Shalom. The aim is to create a Shabbat morning service that feels authentic and is manageable in length. The prayers will be recited mostly in Hebrew from a Siddur that offers a significant amount of transliteration. We will read seven aliyot from the Torah, though not the entire triennial cycle that is followed in the traditional service. An abbreviated Haftarah will be recited if the theme is particularly engaging. The Kehillah Minyan will include a robust and relevant Torah discussion. Popular, singable melodies will be used, sometimes accompanied by guitar. Families with children and teens are of course welcome to attend the Kehillah Minyan. Everyone present at Oheb Shalom on Shabbat morning will gather for the Kiddush shortly after 12:00 PM.

Jewish prayer offers us spiritual expression and an understanding of our place in the world. I hope that the Kehillah Minyan will unlock the beauty of our prayers for even more people.

How to Say Yizkor

Yom Kippur, which begins this Tuesday evening, is one of the significant and dramatic moments of the Jewish year. It is the only day on the Jewish calendar when Jews everywhere around the world, regardless of background, experience or inclination to practice Judaism from one Yom Kippur to the next, spend an intensive block of time in the synagogue. For some, Yom Kippur is defined by the experience of fasting. For others, it is defined by hearing the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei chanted on the eve of the holiday. And for a great many people, Yom Kippur is defined by the recitation of Yizkor prayers.

Yizkor, Hebrew for “May He remember” (referring to God), is a very old Jewish practice of reciting memorial prayers for the dead and pledging to give charity in their name. The practice is mentioned in a 5th century midrash as being associated with the Yom Kippur service in the synagogue. The Ashkenazic rite added Yizkor prayers to the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) as well, probably during the time of the Crusades when the number of deaths was alarmingly high. To this day, we recite Yizkor prayers in the synagogue on the three festivals and on Yom Kippur. Yizkor is recited for anyone for whom someone was a mourner according to Jewish tradition—a parent, a child, a sibling or a spouse.  However one may say Yizkor prayers for any relative or friend. It is a common practice for those who were never a mourner, especially children, to leave the room during the recitation of Yizkor prayers, though this is not required.

Yizkor prayers occur immediately after the reading of the Torah and Haftarah portions, just before the recessional through the congregation and the return of the Torah scrolls to the ark. The recitation of the Yizkor service lasts about 15 minutes, and contains both communal and private prayers. Thus, we both share with one another our feelings of loss and bereavement and express the emotions we feel about our loved ones in an intensely private manner. It is common to see people crying as they recite Yizkor prayers. Yizkor prayers are traditionally recited in Hebrew, but those who are not able to say them in Hebrew can and should say them in any language they wish.

The Yizkor service opens with the recitation of a psalm reflecting the theme of the mortality of all human beings. Next, the congregation shares a poetic reading (in English) that helps us to articulate our sense of loss and the power of memory. Transitioning from communal to private prayers, each person then recites the traditional Yizkor passage separately for each of the people whom they are remembering. Our High Holiday Machzor presents that passage both in Hebrew and in English. The recitation of individual Yizkor prayers is an intensely private moment that takes place in the midst of a congregation full of people doing the same thing. Many people cry, and you should allow yourself to cry if that is what you feel. You may wish to bring a photograph of your loved one to hold and gaze at during the recitation of Yizkor prayers. And you may wish to think of some special memory that comes to mind when you think of your loved one. Yizkor is a time to feel deeply and remember vividly.

The Yizkor prayers ask that we pledge to give charity and live nobly as a testament to the memory of our loved ones. Consider Yizkor as an opportunity to do just that. If there are especially poignant and meaningful ideals and values that your loved ones would have been pleased for you to embrace, Yizkor may very well serve as a moment of resolution and a turning point in your life.

Following the recitation of private Yizkor prayers, prayers for the Six Million victims of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as for congregants who have passed away, are recited publicly. Then the “El Maley Rachamim” prayer is recited (Hebrew for “God, who is compassionate”)– this is the same prayer that is recited at funerals and unveilings.  The service concludes with the recitation of Psalm 23 and the Mourners’ Kaddish.

If you are saying Yizkor, whether for the first time or after many years of having lost a loved one, I hope that the Yizkor prayers that we recite this Yom Kippur will be meaningful and restorative for you.

I wish you, and all those dear to you, a “Gemar Chatima Tova,” a sense resulting from your observance of Yom Kippur that the New Year that has just dawned will be a time of fulfillment, serenity and joy.

Taking Stock

I once saw a particular cartoon that I thought was clever and, as it turns out, may have something to say to us about repentance and renewal. A child shows his report card to his father, which contains mostly Cs and Ds. The father expresses his displeasure, to which the child says: “What do you think it is, Dad, heredity or environment?”

The answer, of course, is that while both heredity and environment could contribute to a child’s academic performance in some small measure, the most influential factor in personal growth is taking responsibility for our own actions. This is the message of the season of repentance and renewal that we are now engaged in and that will reach its climax with the celebration of the High Holidays- Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. During these days we are asked to look within ourselves and perform an inventory of our behavior, our attitudes and our commitments.   In our stock-taking we will surely find things that we must change in the coming weeks and months. We have to be willing to recognize our own faults in order to improve ourselves. We have to be willing to admit that we were wrong, that some of our behaviors and actions are not healthy or productive or positive. We have to be able to admit that we’ve hurt people, either directly or indirectly. If we are truly courageous, we will decide to approach some of the people we’ve hurt or disappointed to ask them to forgive us and enable us to start afresh. Stripping away the prayers and the music and the readings that we will experience in the days ahead, this is the essence of what these occasions are about. We are summoned to perform an act of Teshuva, or turning around and starting over.

This week’s Torah portion – Nitzavim – is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana because it contains ideas and passages that are inspirational at this time of the year. My favorite is Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 11:

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

The passage can be understood to be referring to the practice of Judaism, to honoring the covenant with God through what we do as Jews. I choose to understand the passage as encouragement to each of us that the things in our lives that we perceive as too hard to accomplish are really not that difficult. We may be afraid to confront ourselves on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by listing the behaviors we must change. We may feel that it’s too emotionally depleting to acknowledge our failures. But the Torah reassures us that doing so is within our reach.

Yuli Markovich Daniel was a Soviet dissident writer, poet, translator, and political prisoner. He wrote these words of poetry on the theme of self-judgment, which I find inspiring at this season of the year.

When your life is tumbling downhill head over heels,
Thrashing and foaming like an epileptic,
Don’t pray and offer up repentance,
Don’t be afraid of jail and ruin.

Study your past with concentration,
Evaluate your days without self-flattery,
Grind the fag-ends of illusions underfoot,
But open up to all that’s bright and clear.

Don’t surrender to impotence and bitterness,
Don’t give in to disbelief and lies,
Not everyone’s a cringing bastard,
Not everyone’s a bigot who informs.

And while you walk along the alien roads
To lands which do not figure on your maps,
Count out the names of all your friends
As you would do with pearls or prayer-beads.

Be on the look-out, cheerful and ferocious,
And you’ll manage to stand up, yes, stand up
Under your many-layered load of misery,
Under the burden of your being right.

Our tradition asks us to do something that may be challenging, difficult and painful. But it’s within our reach to do it, and the benefit of getting out from under the “burden of being right” is certainly worth the effort.

Can You Forgive and Forget?

Selach Lanu…Mechal Lanu…Kaper Lanu…Pardon us, Forgive us, Grant us atonement

(High Holiday Machzor)

These words are likely familiar from the Yom Kippur prayer “Al Chet,” the long confessional recited throughout the Day of Atonement. Does this signature line in one of the most important High Holiday prayers reflect a poetic use of language, using three synonyms to help us articulate our desire for forgiveness? Or is there some difference between these three terms- selicha, mechila and kapara? The prayer is indeed poetic, but these three terms represent three different forms of forgiveness and three different human responses to being hurt or offended.

The first, melicha, represents the most basic type of forgiveness. Assuming that the offending person has accepted responsibility for what they’ve done and asked to be forgiven, the offended person is obligated to offer “mechila,” or forgiveness. Mechila doesn’t require that we reconcile with the offending person, or change our view of them. It’s a simple act of letting go of the hurt that was inflicted. Mechila involves not only forgiving but also forgetting, a willingness to cash in a hurt done to us in exchange for peace of mind.

The second kind of forgiveness, selicha, is more complex, for it involves an intentional act of understanding the nature of the offending person. Granting selicha requires that we endeavor to understand what motivated the offender and even try to empathize with them. It requires that we acknowledge the frailty, vulnerability and imperfection of others around us. Selicha can be an act of compassion and good will, and demands more of us than does mechila. Selicha does not necessarily require us to reconcile with the person who offended us, though such an outcome would be positive.

The third kind of forgiveness, kapara (as in Yom “Kippur”), is best described as atonement, achieving a state of “at-one-ment” with God. Our tradition teaches that while human beings can forgive and pardon offenses committed against other people, only God can renew our lives, and that happens after we have acknowledged our transgressions and asked to be forgiven.

The process of forgiveness is thus a complex emotional response to having hurt others and to having been hurt by others. At times, it is necessary to simply forgive and forget, to let go of an act that was hurtful or disturbing. That is mechila—it’s fairly easy to do and is important for our own mental health and that of the person who has hurt us. At times, we ought to strive to understand the person who offended us, or perhaps hope that the person we hurt will try to understand that people are sometimes prone to make mistakes and will sometimes behave in ways that are callous or insensitive. That is selicha—it can be hard to empathize with someone who hurt us and to try to understand their actions. But it is noble and worthy to perform an act of compassion, and we should try to do so whenever we can. And when we have done what we can to acknowledge our mistakes and asked to be forgiven by those we have hurt, we turn to God and asked to be renewed and restored. That is kapara—in a way that is meaningful and real, it is the focus of our prayer and meditation on Yom Kippur.

Our tradition teaches that we must prepare ourselves to seek and to offer forgiveness, and that we must invest effort and time into understanding ourselves and others. We cannot and should not encounter the Days of Awe unprepared spiritually and emotionally. Thus there is a custom of devoting the days leading up to Rosh Hashana to prayer and reflection- traditional Jews recite “selichot” prayers early each morning during the week prior to the New Year. Here at Oheb Shalom, we honor that custom by gathering on a Saturday night a week or so in advance of Rosh Hashana for a Selichot service, during which we recite some of the High Holiday prayers.

This Saturday night (September 5), we will experience “Selichot Under the Stars” at the new home of Bob Sandor and Louise Weingrod (151 Montrose Avenue at the corner of Halsey). Come at 8:30 PM for wine, light food and conversation. At 9:00 PM we’ll move outside for Havdalah and a Selichot experience that will include music, prayer, poetry and reflection. I hope you will be there!