- Judaic Studies
By Jerry Rotenberg, Judaic Studies Teacher
For many years, I’ve had the honor to lead the high holiday services at Beth Joseph and now at BMH-BJ. It’s fun being up front. Seeing people dive into the prayers or just take a nap, it’s fun to see. I prefer to spend my time leading parts of the service and looking at the Machzor (the prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and try to make sense of it. The great thing about Jewish traditional prayers is there is always a source for everything we do. In the Machzor, the Hebrew word, “Vne’emar” - “And it is said” teaches where most of the prayers come from. It doesn’t necessarily explain them entirely but it does give a source to look at. Most sources come from Torah, while others from Talmud. When I know where a prayer comes from, it helps me understand it and becomes easier to lead. It’s hard to explain so I recommend trying it.
One of the prayers said during the Musaf service is titled “Unetaneh Tokef.” It has a fascinating history as to how it got put in the high holiday liturgy. I suggest you look it up.
At the end of the prayer it reads -- “On Rosh Hashanah the decree is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” “Who shall live and who shall die” -- “Who shall come to a timely end and who to an untimely end…..”
Powerful words to read. When leading this, I find it difficult to get these words out. In a sense, I’m asking, who will be around this year and who will not -- As I’m trying to get these words out of my mouth I’m thinking of all the people I know who have passed away. My dear parents and in-laws, aunts, uncles, friends and former students---all who have passed away. I’m thinking about them and even people I don’t know. How will it be this year? Losing so many people to COVID-19--”who shall live and who shall die?” Even writing this I have to stop and compose myself.
As the day of Yom Kippur continues, I lead the Mincha service. Towards the end of this service, my mind starts to wander and thoughts of the first bite of a ‘break-fast bagel’ comes to mind. However, I am leading the service and I try to get back to what's at hand. I listen to the story of Yonah and a big fish. My thoughts go back to the bagel and the lox that I’ll be putting on it. Once again, I remind myself that I need to focus.
Many prayers are said as my mind starts to wander. I start thinking about myself in ways I don’t do the rest of the year. But shouldn’t I be focused on Hashem? I must be doing this wrong.
As Mincha comes to an end, the last “Al Chet” prayer is said. This prayer explains sins in a way that makes me think more than any other prayer. I know no one can commit all the infractions listed in this prayer, but there are a few that I have difficulty saying. As the leader of the service the last lines are said out loud. And that's where I lose it----The last line says,
“And for the sin we committed before you by a confused heart” -- A confused heart? I start thinking about -how many times I’ve been confused? How many times should I have done one thing when I did the other? How much more could I have helped my wife, my kids, my grandson? Why didn’t I spend more time helping my students? I’ve lost students through the years---why didn’t I do more?
The list goes on and on---and the questions and confusion become greater.
As I try to lead these last lines, tears are rolling down my cheeks and it’s hard to getting the words out.I look straight ahead hoping for an answer. I wish someone would say, “and the answer is…..”
But Yom Kippur isn’t over yet. Following the Mincha service, we say N’elah, the ‘concluding service.” Many years ago I learned a midrash that teaches at the time the sun is setting on Yom Kippur, the same time the N’elah service begins, the gates of repentance are still open--there’s still time to ask for forgiveness. As a 13 year old, I envisioned giant white gates being held open by angels--guiding us towards something. As I got older, I understood it as the answer and how to prepare for this day.
Yom Kippur is a day to focus on ourselves. How we do it--is up to each of us. There is no right or wrong way. Some people, such as myself, spend the day fasting and praying. Some people like to take a hike. While others spend the time reading, resting and enjoying quiet walks. The day belongs to us. In our history it is said that Hashem forgave the Jewish People for the sin of the Golden Calf on Yom Kippur. “It is a day of Atonement” - Atonement is different for each of us. How do we atone for everything we’ve done since last Yom Kippur?
As I said before, Yom Kippur is a day to look deep into ourselves. You can’t leave anything out. It’s you and G-d. And sometimes G-d is hard to think about at this time. So I keep looking---I’m looking for these “gates of repentance”---I’m looking at the Torah’s in the Ark, I’m looking around at the people I”ve been praying with since last night. But I’m looking in the wrong direction. My subconscious is yelling at me --”Look at it!”--don’t look straight ahead and expect an answer-- you’re looking the wrong way---look at yourself!
To prepare for Yom Kippur I must be ready to be as honest with myself as possible. I have an entire year to prepare for this. I can’t worry about the bagel and lox and all the wonderful delicacies that will come soon. This is my time--and as I prepare myself for this day, it's important to strive to be that better person that you thought you prayed for last Yom Kippur.
Wishing everyone an easy and meaningful day.