Prayers and Their Meaning

Jewish prayer evokes all kinds of feelings. Sometimes it’s all about the familiar mantra-like experience of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Few people know what the words mean, or that there is no mention – no mention! – of death or dying in the prayer. Yet there is something profoundly moving about saying these Hebrew and Aramaic words – the sound, the rhythm, the cadence, the response of the congregation. The meaning of reciting the Kaddish transcends the meaning of the words.

Recently I’ve run into a Jewish prayer dilemma. A standard part of our liturgy has begun to bother me. It evokes some ire;  it stirs me in a very disquieting way. I love the prayer in Hebrew.  I enjoy chanting it in a variety of different melodies.  When I’m singing along, I don’t focus on the Hebrew – at all. The transcendence of the music lifts me, puts me in a place of calm and Shabbat. It’s the Jewish equivalent of zen.

But lately, I’ve gotten hung up on the English. I’m not quibbling over the authenticity of the interpretation or the grammar. In fact the problem has to do with leaving the melody and entering the meaning. What follows is the text that so bothers me.

Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its border, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.

What’s so problematic? The English is so passive. The entire supposition that peace is something that God can give us if we ask nicely. Or that peace is a gift we get at Dave and Buster’s after we win enough tickets playing Skee-Ball.

Peace does not come from God. It is not some divine, ethereal category of being. Peace, contentment, and the bonds of friendship are not from heaven. They are ideas that so many many people have desperately fought for and died to achieve, for themselves as well as their family, their friends, their community.

Suggesting that God doles out peace demeans the people who have tried to create it. Asking God to strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands is the ultimate cop-out.

It’s up to us to make peace. God may inspire us to do the work. God may remind us that there is divinity in every living being. But God doesn’t grant peace any more than God heals the sick.

God is the great presence that undergirds our sense of purpose. We were created to do that which must be done. The story of manna was inspiring, but no one gets fed without effort. There is no free lunch.

My English version of Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav or Oseh Shalom is more like, “Dear God, remind us that we are the authors of peace. Help us, with your love, to gather the broken pieces and put them together. Help us to feel strong in the face of weakness, to rise to the occasion when we see evil, to extend ourselves to others who may not believe what I believe but who deserve compassion and empathy.”

I’ll keep singing the Hebrew words. Whenever I sing these prayers, I will focus on the music, on the soulfulness of the moment. But if I think about the words and their meaning, I know I can never again wish for God to make peace. It’s almost a shanda, a shameful thing to request. It goes from prayer to an empty gesture.

 The good news and the bad: it’s all up to us.  There’s no divine reckoning.  No Messiah.  No outstretched arm of God enforcing anything. No free parking. We’re all we’ve got. 

Remembering Rabin

 
I don’t remember where I was when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 24 years ago last Monday. But the shock wave at the initial announcement, and then the revulsion and disbelief that he was murdered by a Jew, an observant Israeli of the far right… That, I can never forget. 
Rabin had signed the Oslo Accord earlier that year and was preparing the nation for the inevitable challenges that would come along with making peace. The murderer, Yigal Amir, claimed that Jewish Law permitted him to kill the prime minister. In Amir’s eyes and the eyes of his fellow ultra nationalists, Rabin was a rodef, a dangerous pursuer. Therefore in their twisted logic, they had the right to protect Jewish lives by taking him out. Amir said he shot Rabin in self defense of the Jewish people.The courts did not agree, and Amir was sentenced to life without parole. At his sentencing, Amir proclaimed that he had no remorse and that he had done his duty to the Jewish people. 
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had far-reaching consequences in Israel and the rest of the world. In a very real way, Amir and his fellow far-right community, murdered peace. It was the end of a certain kind of hopefulness, and a recognition that a new force was erupting. It was a force that actively and openly disdained the rights of Palestinians in Israel and vehemently opposed any notion of a two-state solution. Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, embraced the movement and then led the opposition to any real and lasting peace. Prior to Rabin’s death, rallies organized by Likud and other right-wing groups featured depictions of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or in the crosshairs of a gun. Protesters compared the Labor party to the Nazis and Rabin to Adolf Hitler and chanted, “Rabin is a murderer” and “Rabin is a traitor”. In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted, “Death to Rabin”. 
The chief of internal security, Carmi Gillon, then alerted Netanyahu of a plot on Rabin’s life and asked him to moderate the protests’ rhetoric, which Netanyahu declined to do. Netanyahu denied any intention to incite violence. But one doesn’t have to start a fire to cause a panic and a stampede to the exits.
When I heard about Rabin I felt that sharp pain of loss and despair that has become de rigueur for baby boomers. With every political assassination, from John F Kennedy to Martin Luther King to Bobby Kennedy, we watched dreams die along with the visionaries who spoke of them. We have seen, time and again, the triumph of hatred and violence over the fragile beginnings of peace and understanding. It’s happened so often that we have grown inured to the chipping away at new alliances, the denigration of compromises in order to achieve a new degree of harmony and communication between different ideas and ideals. 
We harbor a cynicism, a weariness that threatens to extinguish any spark, smother any flame of conscience. It calls to mind a well known Hasidic story that many have told, including Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom:
 
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov
Saw misfortune threatening the Jews
It was his custom
To go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.
There he would light a fire,
Say a special prayer,
And the miracle would be accomplished
And the misfortune averted.
 
Later when his disciple,
The celebrated Magid of Mezritch,
Has occasion, for the same reason,
To intercede with heaven,
He would go to the same place in the forest
And say: “Master of the Universe, listen!
I do not know how to light the fire,
But I am still able to say the prayer.”
And again the miracle would be accomplished.
 
Still later,
Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov,
In order to save his people once more,
Would go into the forest and say:
“I do not know how to light the fire,
I do not know the prayer,
But I know the place
And this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
 
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn
To overcome misfortune.
Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands,
He spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire
And I do not know the prayer;
I cannot even find the place in the forest.
All I can do is to tell the story,
And this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
 
The story is sufficient only if it leads us to consider the world in which we live, the world we wish to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren. The story is sufficient only if it inspires us to do deeds of lovingkindness, only if we strive to create a new clearing in their forest, a new prayer, a new flame that will banish the darkness of the world. We do a lot of head holding a la Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn. If we don’t get out of our armchairs, then shame on us. As it says in the collection, The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “The day is short, the task is great, the master is insistent. It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it…”
The murder of Yitzhak Rabin will always be one of the darkest days in the history of modern Israel and in the hearts of the Jewish people. I deeply mourn his passing and the potential that died with him. But there must be more than memories and sadness and cynicism. It’s time, in Israel – and in the United States – to get up out of our armchairs. Anything less profanes the memory of Yitzhak Rabin.
 

11-1

It’s the first day of November, the eleventh month of the year. That simple fact is reflected on our smartphones and desktop computers. Perhaps you have a wall calendar with monthly pictures of your favorite breed of dog or cat, or a digital clock on your nightstand glowing out the time and date. Unless 11/1 is your birthday or your anniversary or some other lifecycle event, or if you get paid the first of every month, youre probably utterly indifferent to today’s date.

For our ancestors and for some Jews, up to this very day, a new month is a reason for celebration and prayer. It is always announced at the Shabbat before it arrives. A new month is greeted with open arms.  There are special prayers and rituals and a general sense of gratitude and joy when rosh hodesh comes.

Highlighting the new month has to do with so many things. For one, hearing it announced reminds us of what holidays are coming up. It puts us in the right  mood for the month.

There are deeper connections than that. At its most fundamental level, marking the beginning of every month is about establishing the rhythm of the Universe. It’s the cycle of Jewish time, orbiting around the transcendent presence of God. The beginning of every month coincides with the new moon.

The cycles of Jewish time appear in all spheres of our lives. For centuries, Jewish women have connected the cycle of their bodies with the lunar cycle. Some of the most soulful and innovative Jewish observances come out of women celebrating rosh hodesh. Because women were creating it in a patriarchal framework, these rituals developed quietly, and were kept through oral tradition. That’s been changing over the last 50 years. There are now many groups of women actively connecting for rosh hodesh.

Another significant explanation for marking the new month is that, to quote Steve Miller, “Time keeps on slippin’ into the future.” To say a prayer praising God for this new month reminds us to be grateful for the unspeakable beauty of the world in which we live.

“But”, you may ask, “What about the stuff that drives us crazy, acts of depredation and violence, of hunger and disease?” Yes, that’s there too. And for that reason we are called upon to have faith, and to hope.

We mark a new month according to the arrival of the new moon. The odd thing is that a new moon is essentially not visible.  There are several reasons why it is impossible for us to see the New Moon in the sky. The alignment of the Sun, the Moon, and Earth, leaves the side of the Moon that faces Earth in complete darkness. Technically, this is called a conjunction or Syzygy in the Sun-Earth-Moon system. In addition, the New Moon rises and sets around the same time as the Sun, bringing it too close to the Sun’s glare to be seen with the naked eye.

It’s all about having faith that the new moon is there, even when we can’t see it. We could spend our time in desperation and anxiety, waiting for the first sliver of the waxing moon. Or we just keep going, having faith in the cycle of the Universe, in the rhythm of the saints.

There’s a beautiful tradition called birkat hachodesh: blessing the new month. It is recited outside at the advent of the new month/new moon. It’s not done so much anymore, which is a shame. Because on the night of a new moon, the sky is so dark, yet so filled with stars. It reminds us just how tiny we are – and that we are so lucky, in this moment, to be alive, that everything will ultimately be alright as we are embraced by the Holy One, and by each other.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who by sacred speech created the heavens, and by the breath of Your mouth all of the stars and the planets. You set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task. And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their Owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth. And to the moon You said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those God carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their realms. Blessed are You God, who renews the months.

There is a cosmic harmony. We live in a Universe of such transcendence. We live: with hope. Keep the faith.

[I am aware of the fact that the tradition of celebrating rosh hodesh is around the Jewish calendar – we welcomed the month of Heshvan 4 days ago. But don’t let that stop you. Put on your coat tonight, walk outside, take a deep breath and look at the sky: find the waxing moon. And say thank you.]

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Climbing Another Mountain

When we switch back from the special white Torah covers to the Shabbat multi-colored covers on Simchat Torah this Sunday at 6pm, it will signal the official conclusion of the High Holy Days season. I’ve never climbed a mountain before, but I would assume that the feeling upon reaching the summit is a lot like putting the last Torah back in the ark to begin the new cycle of temple life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these last few weeks of the new year. The HHD cycle felt different. Certainly, the celebration of the High Holy Days is never the same twice. Each year is a unique moment in time for us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a people. We’re all travelers, moving through time and space.

This new year is coming in with dark clouds and heavy weather. We obviously never know what will happen from day to day and month to month. But I sense a climate of intense angst, a particular kind of dread I don’t remember ever feeling, not even during the Vietnam era.

We don’t know what the vicissitudes of life will be this year. All we know for sure is that they will be choppy. Or to put it another way: we’re on the roller coaster and we’re listening to the click click click of the mechanism pulling us up the steep slope. It’s dark and we can’t make out when were going to reach that point when we begin to careen down and around.

Is it grammatically correct to say that this new year felt “more unique” then years past? However one phrases it, that’s my feeling. It dawned on me from the beginning of the cycle. Usually, at Erev Rosh Hashanah services, congregational participation is muted. It’s as if people are getting into the groove of the season; the special melodies, the prayers we say only during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… By Kol Nidre, folks are more attuned to the music and the mood of the season. More people sing with confidence and fervor.

But this year, when we turned and sang Avinu Malkeinu, I was deeply moved by the immediacy of the congregation. People were singing. They were listening. People were profoundly present. Why? I have a theory, based on absolutely no evidence other than my gut feeling and anecdotal evidence from congregants and from rabbis serving other congregations.

I think we realized just how important – how necessary it is – to gather as a community. We know that going it alone is not how to make one’s way into the uncertainty ahead. A year after the Tree of Life murders, we understand the fragility of life as Americans and as American Jews in a new way. We need each other – it’s as simple as that. There was, I think, a kind of urgency in the congregation, borne not out of fear, but rather from the conviction that to “dwell together as brothers and sisters” is more than a hackneyed phrase. It is a raison d’être.

Embrace the World for a Moment

The news continues to be like an ongoing soap opera, with one long cliffhanger after another. It all feels more and more preposterous. The future looks murky and threatening. It feels almost unbearable. I’ve said the Yiddish word ‘oy’ a billion times these past few years. Stop the world! I want to get off!
If we wanted, we could share our outrage over the disgraceful state of our world. We could count on all fingers and toes just how many things are wrong. We all carry more than our share of fear and anxiety over every minute of every day.
The first Gerer rebbe, Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg, once said something like, ” If you spend all your time reflecting on your failings, on evil and moral decay, then over time you become enslaved by evil and the whole world turns to ashes. Stir filth this way or that, it’s still filth. In the time I spend brooding about the world, I could be stringing pearls for the benefit of the Holy One.”
It’s hard to keep positive. It’s hard not to be in a permanent sense of indignation. And certainly, I’m not suggesting we ignore the social ills. We Jews have a job to do, to repair this broken world.
It’s a grey New England, early Fall day. The leaves are brilliant, glistening with rain, blowing in the breezes. I know in just a short while, the leaves will be gone, and winter will be here. But for right now, this very moment, I’m taking a moment to breathe and to give thanks. Yom Kippur has passed. Sukkot is coming. I’m still here, and if you’re reading this, well then, so are you!
At the end her beautiful, heartbreaking poem, The Thing Is, Ellen Bass writes, “You hold life like a face/between your palms, a plain face/ no charming smile, no violet eyes,/and you say, yes, I will take you/I will love you, again.
That’s what we do: we shake our fists, we march, we seek justice. But for a moment, we can open our arms wide and embrace the mortal, tired world.

Forgiveness and Letting Go

It is so hard to forgive. After being assailed by a colleague, humiliated by a loved one, betrayed by a friend, harmed physically or emotionally, or both… the list is infinite – the resulting damage is often traumatic. We’re a mess. Our self-confidence teeters on the edge. We can’t trust anyone, including ourselves, for a long time, or at least what feels like a long time. The process of healing takes years, and sometimes, a lifetime. There are wounds to bind.

After time has gone by, and the hurt has subsided, we sometimes replace the pain caused by another with resentment. We gather our emotional strength and proceed to use it as a force to ward off the offender. Every mention of their name, every picture, anything at all associated with them gets us going. We resent the offender, yet we continue to think about them way too much. We plot fantasies of revenge, insult their reputation, and tell stories of their perfidy to anyone who will listen (and sometimes we tell the story over and over again to people who don’t want to hear it again…).

When we’ve been hurt or slighted, we get thrown off our game. But over time, as we eschew the possibility of forgiveness in favor of anger and blame, we become stunted. Our hearts whither. We become less accessible to others until we are nothing but resentment. We see the world through a distorted lens as we become a caricature: the quintessential victim.We don’t have to live in the pain of the past. We can emerge from that place, even if it feels terrifying to let go of something that has become our raison d’etre.

When we forgive someone, we lose nothing. Instead, we gain a new, open heart. We can love and be loved in a fuller, more productive way. We don’t have deny that we were wronged. We don’t have to pretend we were injured. We don’t have to forget. But we do have to try to forgive in order to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.I know that some things are unforgivable, and no one else can make that call. But finding the strength to forgive is finding freedom for the soul. It’s finding precious air to breathe. It’s admitting just how big the human heart can grow.

Yom Kippur can be a hard day, and I’m not talking about the fasting. It’s about starting again. It’s about the spaciousness of the soul and the healing of old wounds. It’s about forgiveness.

It’s Only Words, And Words are All I Have

I am in a tiny dinghy on a vast sea of words. Hebrew words, English words, transliterated words. I’ve picked up my High Holy Day Machzors a hundred times and chanted, read, then reread all the pages we’re covering. For weeks I’ve been writing and rewriting. The tyranny of composing essays or sermons, or really anything on a computer is that you never arrive at the final draft. You can continue to edit right up to the very moment you have to get up and deliver the sermon or submit the article.

This means I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing and editing my words. I reach a point when I begin to panic. Does this make sense? Have I written my way into a corner? Is this sermon worthy of your attention?

Words. When this existential confrontation occurs, I am reminded of Flaubert’s aside in Madame Bovary, when he writes, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Jules Feiffer, the famous cartoonist/writer/gadfly, produced a weekly cartoon commentary for the Village Voice. One of the recurring themes was a woman in a black leotard, doing modern dance steps while proclaiming a variety of profound truths, nonsense, and provocative insights about the world. For some reason, I’ve imagined doing a sermon like that. Don’t worry – that would never happen. And I hate to dance. And I’ve never attended a single dance performance, save my daughters’ endless dance recitals, which were, let’s face it – deadly.

It’s not the dancing per se that attracts me. It’s just words never seem entirely up to the task. They’re a cracked kettle. They’re opaque, easily misunderstood. So maybe a form beyond words alone. Maybe interpreting words through movement could make their meaning clearer. Maybe?

So here I am – heneini – talking about the limits of words – with words. And I don’t have many moves beyond the literary ones. This is what I’ve got. And I will share with you, through all of our filters and thoughts and experiences, my best attempt at making meaning. Think of it as an offering of truth or a challenge to preconceived notions. Come join me on this sea of words.

Thinking About the Good Old Days

There’s a significant phrase in Jewish liturgy. We hear it most commonly at the end of the Torah service.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, hadesh yameinu k’kedem.

This line comes from the book of Lamentations, chapter 5, verse 21. Lamentations was written after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire conquered Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, and then destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE. It was a horrible and traumatic time for the Jewish people.


In its original setting, this text is the next to last verse in the entire book. It is a desperate cry. The author begs God to let us back into the divine presence. After the destruction of the Temple, he feels cast out. After so much pain and loss, he despairs of anything good ever happening again.


It’s a complicated sentence to translate because these 6 words imply so much. My interpretation would be, “[Forgive us; open your heart to us]. Let us come back to you, and we will come back; make it like it used to be.”


This dream of restoration, that the good old days are possible to reclaim, is an ancient and abiding hope. But the good old days is a mythic construct. It’s gazing into a rearview mirror vainly hoping we’re looking forward. Nostalgia can be so sweet and intoxicating. If we could just go back to the way things were, we could fix everything and make it all better.


I’m in that new club of older adults who say things like, “I used to be able to walk so much faster.” Or, “I used to stay up until 1am reading and working – what happened?”


Here’s what happened; life happened. It’s not mysterious, and it shouldn’t be surprising. Yet it is both mysterious and shocking.


As we greet people to have a sweet new year, I consciously do not say anything about having a year of peace. Because I don’t think it’s appropriate to wanly wish for something that cannot happen. At least, not right now. I do remember a time in the Sixties when it felt like we could do anything. It was a time that felt ripe with new possibilities. We truly believed that we could end the war in Vietnam; we would give peace a chance.


It’s chilly out there these days, in temperature and temperament. There’s no going back. It’s all about moving forward with resiliency. The myth of the good old days is so comforting, but not instructive. It’s not real. The notion that one day, peace will come, as if it’s a long lost zeppelin, coming in for a landing, at last, is crazy.


It has to be about the will of the people of the planet to decide on just how ludicrous it is to posit that some people deserve more than others based on their race or religion. Peace will only come when we’re all willing to work for it by rowing in the same direction.


And that’s why the hope for peace is a Messianic ideal. Because, quite frankly, the whole world already knows the harsh reality of climate change. We are all under its thumb, yet we still refuse to act in concert as a human race. Which is why I can’t say we pray for peace in the new year.


Here’s what I can feel comfortable saying on the cusp of the new year. Dear God, give us the strength to live through each day with dignity. Give us the courage to stand by the ideals of justice and mercy. Give us the selflessness to extend ourselves to others as we take care of ourselves.


The wishlist is staggering. But wishing and praying are a good foundation for action. As we enter a new year in a little more than a week, I pray that we can find the courage to hope and the strength to do what must be done.
There’s no good old days, just the days to come. They’re empty pages; what a sweet new year it would be if we were to fill those pages with abiding love and holy intentions.

Shabbat Shalom
rebhayim

Come Take a Ride

When I was a kid, my parents would load us into the car on a Sunday afternoon and then take a Sunday drive. Do people still do this? I can’t imagine. All of us, the young and the old and those in between, are so programmed now. Who can imagine ever find the time to get into the car and just … drive?

We had no destination, no roadside attraction where we would eventually arrive and do something. We just sat in the car while my father drove. He would meander on secondary roads through the little towns and villages of Connecticut. One of his goals, I think, was to purposely get lost and then figure out how to get back home (I know, the metaphors are so overdetermined here that I can’t even begin to explore them now – I’ll save that for another essay…)

Within 20 minutes of getting into the car, everyone but me was asleep: my mother, riding shotgun, my sisters in the backseat. And I was as far away from my father as I could be, rolling around in the wayback of our Studebaker Lark station wagon.  

He had nothing to say to me, and I had nothing I could say to him that felt safe. So we sat in silence as the rest of the family dozed off. I don’t remember listening to the radio. I just remember the hum of the wheels on the uneven pavement.

This worked for him, driving along in silence. As for me, it felt odd, this aimless, directionless winding through New England. I appreciated the quiet. But there was always some anxiety associated with this trip to nowhere. What if we got lost? What if he really didn’t know where he was going and how we were going to get back? (Yet another essay…)

To this day, the notion of just taking a walk with no destination in mind and with no goal makes me a little crazy. I’m ok to say we’ll walk 25 minutes and then turn around. That’s fine. But when someone says, “let’s go exploring!” my imagination hyperventilates.  I start to worry. I think, “How long will we be gone? When will I be back in my familiar setting, in my space?”

I don’t know how Magellan and Columbus and the Vikings and all those History Channel people did it. Just setting out, as Tom Petty sings, “into the great wide open”? Perhaps it’s my existential vertigo acting up? I know for sure that I would never sign up to be crew on the Nina, the Pinta, or even on the Santa Maria.

I would wave from the shore, cheering the brave souls on. That night, I’d crawl into my own bed and fall asleep, knowing the next morning, I would be right where I belong. It’s not very brave or courageous of me, I know.

Some people were borne to push themselves to the outer limits. They are the ones who listened to all the flat earth stories, and then said, “What the heck!? Let’s see what happens.” They are the ones like Theodor Herzl, who said, “Let’s create a Jewish State!” and then set about doing it because, well, why not?

Sometimes we’re the driver, mapping it out; or not. There may be a destination. Or not. But we are the drivers. And other times? We’re in the wayback, awake while others sleep, looking out the back where we’ve just been. I was just there for the ride. And sometimes, that’s the best place to be.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

The Story of a Broken Spine


 I love my Mishkan Tefillah, the blue Shabbat siddur(prayer book) we use every week of the year. It’s the standard size of every other siddur in the sanctuary. But it’s a special edition, made with a stronger binding. And, get this: the page edges are gilded in gold. It has the look of an antiquarian treasure and the heft of the holy. 

Over so many years of regular hard-core use, my siddur has come to conform to my hands. The balance point on its spine is perfect. It never feels too big or unwieldy. The book knows what page I’m going to next. It opens at all the places we pray from. The oil from my fingers has left darkened corners on the pages with prayers I’ve opened to a million times, like Aleinu (pg 586or the Kaddish (pg 598)

I’ve spent real quality time with my siddur, at services large and small. Cold snowy Friday nights when we’re lucky to have a minyan (including a Torah or two…), big b’nai mitzvah celebrations with 250 people in the sanctuary, opening a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah – the list goes on. The beat goes on.

I love my siddur. So you can imagine how I felt when someone, somehow, took my siddur out of the sanctuary, something I NEVER do, my deluxe siddur with the gilded pages, and used it to copy some prayers. If that were all, dayeinu – it would’ve been enough. But it was far worse. While putting it in the copier, the culprit placed it on the glass surface of the machine. They then clearly pressed the siddur down hard to copy both sides of the book. I saw my siddur in the copy room next to the paper cutter and wondered why it was not in its proper place. I opened it and could instantly tell that it had been damaged. The offender inadvertently cracked the binding.

I was crushed. I felt violated and was almost in tears. My siddur, my source of strength, the sacred vessel with which I led the congregation in prayer and celebration, was broken. You might say, “Well, Rabbi; we own a few hundred copies of the siddur. Just grab one of those, or buy another one.” I didn’t want to take one out of congregational circulation. It would somehow not be kosher to use it. The siddurim are yours, not mine. 

I did call the CCAR to inquire about the availability of a special edition. The head of the CCAR Press personally searched high and low, but there were no more special editions for sale. They had sold out years ago. 

I decided I would simply carry on using my gilded, injured siddur. But it didn’t feel the same in my hands. It felt fragile. Whenever I turned the pages, I could feel the broken spine. It didn’t naturally open to the usual pages anymore. I had to open it cautiously to avoid turning to the wrong page. It was not ideal, but what else could I do? 

Then, a moment of reckoning. During a Jazz Shabbat service, when I turned to the Amidah (pg 164), two pages came loose. The spine had failed. I was heartbroken. What was I to do now? 

We had decided last year that with so many of our congregational siddurim in disrepair, we needed to send them to a bindery for restoration. So, with a heavy heart, I realized that I would have to trust my siddur in the hands of an unknown bookbinder. With God and Doug Ball as my witnesses, I taped a note to the cover of my prayer book. It read, “This is my beloved siddur. Please be kind to it.” It came back about two months later. It looked good! The binding was restored, maybe better than ever. I was mightily relieved and most grateful. But it’s not quite the same siddur it was ten years ago. We’ll need to get reacquainted. 

As the river pulls us all along, as we approach the rapids of a new year, we acknowledge that nothing is perfect, nothing stays the same. The pressures of work, infirmity, conflict, reversals in love and work and life, crushing disappointment in us and others – all the stuff that makes adult life so hard can cause us to break, just like the spine of my siddur. Amid adversity, what are we to do?

Giving up or giving in is sometimes the path of least resistance, but that’s rarely the best path. In the end, all we can do is to trust others to help us mend what is broken in us. This isn’t easy. There’s nothing carefree about it. We have to take a step towards health and believe there are those out there ready to catch us when we falter and fall. Nothing returns to the way it was. The past is accessible through memory but not through spirit.

My beautiful siddur is the same – but different, just like me. That may be one of the hardest truths about aging, about our victories and our losses. We’re precisely who we’ve always been. And we’re not. The river changes us – and I’m not just talking about wrinkles. 5780 will be here soon. I’m excited to face a new year knowing I don’t – I can’t! – face it alone. I’ve got my family, my friends, and my colleagues – and, thank God, I have you. So let’s embrace it all together: finitude and eternity, loss and new life, endings and beginnings, laughter and tears. With patience and humor, we can help each other mend our souls.