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I am in my seat at the Metropolitan Opera House. The majestic crystal chandeliers start their rise into the sky. The spotlight reveals an elegantly attired conductor. The house falls silent, he lifts his baton, the orchestra begins. The music goes straight to my heart; I am enraptured by my favorite moment, the overture.
Selichot is the overture for our High Holidays – and my favorite part of the season. For years, the tradition in our community had been a regional Selichot service among several congregations. If feet do the judging, however, it wasn’t a tradition that worked especially well for us because, sadly, hardly anyone from our congregation ever came. And thus, every year I struggled with how to draw more people to be present for Selichot.
Yes, I know, often food is a way to bring people in. But even the fanciest spreads don’t always get people in the door, keep them there, or prompt them to come back. Neither does a performance. They can go elsewhere for those things. We can only hold them with what we do best: focus on meaning, tradition, faith, and striving to reach that spot in the heart where no one else can go.
With that thought in mind, last fall I jumped at the chance to pilot Mishkan HaLev, a new prayer book for Elul and Selichot, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the professional association of Reform rabbis in North America. Piloting the prayer book gave us an opportunity to make a radical change: offering our own Selichot service in our own congregation.
With the cantor and the ritual committee on board, we decided to try it.
Together, the cantor and I read through the pilot copy to plan the service. There was far more material than we could use and we agreed to focus on these six sections:
Then, within each section, we chose specific liturgy that would provide balance and direction for the service, including musical selections – some we wanted to teach prior to Rosh HaShanah and others that would be familiar, and make people’s hearts – the very spot wanted to reach – beat faster.
To my delight, we had a wonderful turnout for Selichot and I am convinced that Mishkan HaLev was – at least in part – the reason.
The High Holiday season is somber and the work we do is heavy. How refreshing then to begin our overture with Mishkan HaLev, which works because it is rooted in joy and celebrates the opportunities the season offers us to change our lives. The name of the book itself – Mishkan HaLev – not only promises a connection to the other Mishkan prayer books in our lives, but also a focus on the heart – a joyful heart.
Yehuda Amichai’s beautiful poetry appears throughout the book, tying together both the ancient and the modern with timely, meaningful messages that are neither moralistic nor pedantic. One poem, “The Place Where We Are Right,” demonstrates this theme:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Using a prayer book that we knew was not yet cast in stone contributed to the excitement as well. Just as we were present that evening because of the possibility of changing ourselves, so too the draft prayer book. We delighted in the draft version and we helped shape it into the better version it is today.
Mishkan HaLev helps open our hearts to the tasks at hand. I saw it with my own eyes last year, and look forward to seeing it again soon, when the new book will be in our hands as we open the gates of 5778.