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New Prayerbooks for New Year

This year we will be using a new High Holiday prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh. We are very excited about this change.  I am very much looking forward to using the Reform movement’s newly published machzor. After twenty years of using the old prayerbook I am ready for a change. We will of course still be treated to the same wonderful singing by our cantor. And the tradition’s Avinu Malkeinu and Kol Nidre will mark our days as they always have. We might be surprised, however, by some of the machzor’s innovations.

Next to all the Hebrew prayers one will now find English transliterations. This will provide an invitation for everyone to participate in our singing and praying. Also, the English translations, and readings, are more contemporary and modern. In addition, given that we were using several different editions of the old prayerbook, everyone will now be reading the same words. It is my belief that this new machzor will make our tradition’s prayers even more accessible.

One will also discover commentaries throughout the prayerbook explaining the High Holiday liturgy. Most beautiful of all, the machzor provides readings that help prepare our spirits for these Days of Awe. Arrayed on the pages one can find both traditional teachings and contemporary poems. While we will not read every line on every page, one is welcome to peruse these readings. The spirit of the day is to get lost in the prayerbook in order to emerge a stronger and better person. The pages of the machzor should not be viewed as a script as much as an invitation to look within at our souls. These prayers are not ends in themselves but tools to better ourselves.

How can we ask forgiveness of friends and family? How can we fill our hearts with gratitude?

And so as we prepare to enter the sanctuary, I offer two new readings from Mishkan HaNefesh.

First the traditional. Rabbi Israel Salanter was the founder of the Mussar movement of Orthodox Judaism. His goal was to return ethics to the center of Jewish life. Here is a story told about this great rabbi.
Rabbi Israel Salanter once spent the night at a shoemaker’s home. Late at night, he saw the man working by the light of a flickering candle. “Look how late it is,” the rabbi said. “Your candle is about to go out. Why are you still working? The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.” For weeks afterward, Rabbi Israel Salanter was heard repeating the shoemaker’s words to himself: “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.” As long as the candle burns—as long as the spark of life still shines—we can mend and heal, seek forgiveness and reconciliation. We can begin again.
And now the contemporary. Lewis Thomas, a twentieth century American physician and writer, teaches:
Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contended dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely out-numbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places. Even more astounding is our statistically improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.
And so yes, there will still be dancing!

There must always be dancing.