Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Rather than following the customary practice of reviewing the quality of the chazzanus on Yom Kippur (“Shaya outdid himself”, “Moishe should give up the breitel already”), I want to say a few words about the davening itself.

If you break Yom Kippur davening down to its components, you’ll find that each is somewhat problematic.

God is great. Well, yeah, but when it comes to absolutes, less is more. As Rabbi Chanina points out (Berakhot 33b), all praise of God is inadequate so the very endeavor is an insult.

We are bad. Also true (speaking for myself) but formulaic viduy actually diminishes the desired sense of personal responsibility. And whose idea was alphabetization, which has got to be the worst conceivable organizing principle for sins? I actually dutifully mumble my way through that stuff and then offer a free form recounting of this year’s failures and transgressions. (The list is depressingly familiar so that my little wait-till-next-year chat with the Ribboino Shel Oilam is fairly lame; it’s not even crude or naive enough to feature in a Baal Shem Tov story).

Our lives are vulnerable and fleeting. About five meters from me in shul sits a person younger than me who is in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. (His daughter reads the viduy for him despite the fact that if there is a person on earth who has done no sins this year, it is he.) Under the circumstances, the message of human frailty comes through with considerably more power when I look up from my machzor than when I look into it. (One can also learn from this remarkable man the meaning of forbearance and grace but that is for another discussion.)

Beis Hamikdash rituals. These are better learned at home than davened in shul.

So what is left? I’ll tell you. What is left is the knowledge that these very words and some of the tunes we use for them were read by our forefathers in grand synagogues and dank caves, in times of prosperity and times of persecution, in hundreds of countries most of which have long since disappeared from the face of the earth. They were read by chassidim and misnagdim, sefardim and ashkenazim, assimilated Jews and contrite apostates. They were read in ghettoes and concentration camps and labor camps and refugee camps.

By reading these words and singing these songs, we connect with our ancestors and with the values in the name of which they lived and died in ways far more profound than can be articulated in words. By reading these words and singing these songs together, we connect viscerally with each other and with all Jews and, in this way, we connect to the Bashefer.

So, for me at least, ninety percent of Yom Kippur davening is just showing up. Nine percent more is having my lame chat with the RSO and the last percent is my fervent prayer that the baal tefillah won’t try to outdo himself by doing Unesaneh Toikef to the theme song of some sitcom.


Blogger Ben Bayit said...


3:29 PM  
Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

I don't agree with your analysis. I think the Hachamim who made up the tefillah knew what they were doing. They were well aware that people who say the same tefillot over and over can not possibly have good kavannah for the entire thing. Don't forget that before the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, tefillot were spontaneous, but it was clear to them that that system wasn't working any more. I once heard Rav Natan Lopes Cardozo say he challenged a class of talmidim who complained that the tefillot were "boring" to come up with their own tefillot. Naturally, they came up completely blank. Thus, I think that the Hachamim felt that if by constant repitition of tefillot, a person would occassionaly light up on one small passage and really put some kavannah in it, then they had accomplished their goal in composing the tefillot. Similarly, if a person keeps repeating the "Al Hait's" and "Ashamnus" and then suddenly realizes that he really has committed one of the transgressions mentioned, and does teshuva for it, then the whole Yom Kippur liturgy has done its job for that particular person.

Regarding the Musaf delineation of the Avodah of the Kohen Gadol, I think that keeping the memory of it alive, 2000 years after the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed is very important. There is a famous catchy tune for "mah nehedar haya Kohen Gadol" which is recited after that section, and whoever wrote that tune was a genius because I can practically SEE the Kohen Gadol coming out of the Beit Kodesh HaKodashim when we are singing it (similarly, although I am an ideological kippah serugah wearer, I daven Friday Nites at a Vishnitz Shul, and one reason is that they have a responsive reading for the "havu l'hashed benei elim" which is recited just before L'cha Dodi, which is unbelievably dramatic sounding and it makes me picture in my mind the "matan Torah" at Sinai....this is the power of good music accompanying powerful texts).

12:23 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

I don't think we actually disagree here. I am not suggesting that chazal missed the boat. I merely note that the overall experience of being a link in the chain far exceeds the specific experience of this or that section of davening. I'm sure chazal understood that perfectly well just as I am sure that the tefillot that they established embody multiple layers of meaning most of which elude me due to my own limitations.

12:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a meaning behind the alphebatization of vidui is to show how we have sinned from aleph to taph.

As for praise of god - it is more focused on malchut, which is something we are trying to convince ourselves (after all, the degree of God's malchut is in our minds).

As for the avoda, I personally find it inspiring. Ata konanta really captures the whole experience well. But other than the experiential, "unshalma pharim sefateinu." I davened with yeshivat ramat gan and Rav Shapira, who davens musaf, cried his way through it. Guess it works for some people...

1:02 AM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

the tune to 'Marei Kohen' is a London School of Jewish Song (Yigal Calek) classic. It is so common now that even nusach sefard places sing the Nusach Ashkenaz lyrics, and most places now sing all the verses to the end, even though only half the piyut was commonly recited until this song was written. They also get credit for the tune to "chamol al maasecha" which is now universal.

On the whole I agree here with BenChorin. YK (and the yomim noraim as a whole) is a PRIMARY vehicle that we have in connecting with our long tradition and with each other as community - and I would also add to this - in passing this tradition on to our children. As noted in the conclusion to Dr, Kenneth Levine's book "The Oslo Syndrome" these are the primary tools we have to fight the "rot" that can infect Jewish society. IMHO, the vaad of any shul that advocates not having young children together with their parents in shul on the yomim noraim (playgroups, youth minyan, etc etc.) needs to have their heads examined.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i'm another one who's a fan of the ‘avoda. The ‘Avoda was a very public thing in the Beit Hamiqdash; studying it individually just wouldn't cut it, it needs to be re-enacted publicly as a community.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I thought you might be interested in hoshienu.org - an online community of people who learn and pray for the well being of our brethren.

12:48 AM  

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