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Rabbi's Message (8/12/20)

Aleynu- It’s Up to Us

One of the high points of the High Holy Day season is the recitation of Aleynu HaGadol, the Great Aleynu, at the beginning of the Shofar service.  This special Aleynu, with its High Holy Day nusach (thematic melody), is situated on Rosh Hahshanah in the original spot where it was first used in the liturgy in the 3rd century.  Aleynu was later placed as a closing prayer in every service, holiday, Shabbat, and weekday.

The first words of this prayer, as we face the ark and bend and bow, are: “Aleynu l’shabei’ ach…;” “Ours is the duty to praise the All-Sovereign, to honor the Artist of Creation, who made us unique in the human family, with a destiny all our own.”  In other words, it’s up to us to honor God with our special Jewish rituals, customs and prayers. It’s up to US, not to the rabbi and the cantor or to those who organize the services and events that make the communal experience of holidays what they are.  Aleynu, it’s up to each of us individually.  Never has this imperative been more important than it is this year.

This will be a High Holy Days season like no other.   We will not gather in the sanctuary for prayer.  We will not socialize in Founders Hall or walk together to Lake Michigan for Tashlich.  We will not decorate the Temple’s Sukkah or dance with and unfurl the Torah on Simchat Torah because of the pandemic and the need to refrain from public gatherings.  What, indeed, will these holidays be like?  How will we mark these special days in ways that will feel festive and profound, as they ought to be?  The answer, ultimately is aleynu, in our own hands.

Yes, the Temple leadership and staff have been working hard and putting tremendous energy and resources into making our online holiday experience special, accessible and meaningful.  We have hired Rabbi Sarah Rosenbaum Jones to assist cantorial soloist Orit Perlman and me in bringing a professionalism to our online services and to lead our Family Services for the holidays.  We have made expenditures and taken other steps to enhance our technology, acquire expert help in musical editing, provide prayerbooks to our members (both hard copy and in online visual format), create a sense of community online and through other means, and more.  We are now in the process of making sure there is still ample participation from members in the services, including lay readers and shofar sounders, and to streamline the online services so that they are a reasonable length for our screen-viewing stamina.  We will also provide for socializing on Zoom at various points, such as the traditional Rosh Hashanah reception time after the Erev Rosh Hashanah service on Sep 18.

But, in the end, it is aleynu, up to each one of us, to make the experience feel like it really is all that it should be as we start a New Year.   Here are some suggestions of how you might prepare yourself and your home environment to welcome a New Year:

  • Prepare a special space to watch the services.  Put out a special table cloth where you will be watching; bring fresh flowers to adorn the space; set up Jewish ritual objects or art and surround yourself with them.
  • Dress up for the holiday, as if you were coming to Temple.  It will feel much more like the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, if you are not sitting in sweats or a T-shirt!  Bring your tallit and kippah, if you have them.
  • Purchase or borrow from the Temple the special High Holy Day prayerbook, the two-volume Machzor from CCAR Press.  (Also available as Kindle eBook.) Details about the distribution of the Temple’s prayer books for borrowing will be available soon.
  • Light your own candles when the prayer is recited in the service, if you have not done so already. (Order candles online ahead of time, if you need them.) Have a glass of wine or juice ready for Rosh Hashanah Kiddush and a Havdalah set (or a glass of wine, spices and any candle) for the end of Yom Kippur.
  • For the Yizkor Memorial service on Yom Kippur, light a yahrzeit candle (again, purchase online ahead of time if you need them) and surround yourself with photos of those you are remembering.
  • Do Tashlich on your own or with family on Rosh Hashanah afternoon or any time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Go to any nearby river, stream, pond, or lake.  We will supply materials for what to say and do there. 
  • Build your own Sukkah. Numerous do-it-yourself kits are available for purchase online. Many can be done without any tools.  (I put my own Sukkah up every year by myself with no tools at all.  The basic erecting of the frame takes no more than 45 minutes.)  Or design your own.  Be creative.  Basics instructions are here.   Decorate it in your own style.  Cornstalks or branches from your yard can be used for the top.  Or buy “schach” for the top online. Sukkot is, in essence, a home custom, perfect for a year when staying at home is the safest place for us to be!

“Aleynu l’shabei’ ach…;” “Ours is the duty to praise the All-Sovereign, to honor the Artist of Creation, who made us unique in the human family, with a destiny all our own.”  The uniqueness of the Jewish people is on display in all its glory during the cycle of fall holidays.  The coming month of Elul, the time for spiritual preparation, a time to review the past year and take note of places we’ve fallen short and can improve, is the beginning of our unique Jewish process of self- examination.  And this year, Elul can also be a time to prepare our homes to be mikd’shei m’at, miniature sanctuaries, where the magic of the Days of Awe happens.  Aleynu, it is up to us, to make it so.   Kein Y’hi Ratzon.  May it be so.

Rabbi Dena A. Feingold

Fri, September 25 2020 7 Tishrei 5781