Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Personal Reflection: Mizmor l'David (The Minyan, not the Psalm)

When living in Israel, one is afforded the opportunity to attend many different places for t'fillot. On every corner there is a beit k'neset (synagogue) which is ready to welcome any passerby. Each one is a little different in terms of spacial arrangement, attendance, and general atmosphere. I've referenced on a few occasions the importance a friendly environment, acoustics, and so forth. Obviously the davening itself is just as important. So, I offer you the following case study: Mizmor l'David.

Mizmor l'David is an independent minyan in Jerusalem. They meet in what appears to be the multi-purpose room of a local school. Participants are seated on plastic chairs. The room is cramped, and often far too warm. The mechitza which divides the space roughly in half is made of cloth on a wood frame, but is not usually opened during the d'var torah. Men and women deliver the d'var Torah, however only men serve as shaliach tzibbur (public emissary). The davening is Shlomo Carlebach style, with dancing often following the conclusion of L'cha Dodi (a liturgical poem that welcomes the Shabbat Bride).

My Take: Despite the cramped (some people even daven outside and listen through the open windows) and often overheated surroundings, I have yet to find a minyan that matches the energy and spirit of Mizmor. There are some other fantastic, and fairly famous minyanim around this neighborhood, but none of their Kabbalat Shabbat experiences are as consistently moving or energetic as those of Mizmor. The passion overwhelms all of the detractors (little personal space, uncomfortable seating, and the heat). Often I feel as if the energy builds, and then when it finally reaches its breaking point, participants begin dancing. Sometimes I force myself to stop my own singing, and just listen. The fact that I feel fully integrated into the davening while I'm just sitting there, speaks to the total experience of this particular t'fillah.

My blessing for everybody is that we find a place such as Mizmor where we can fully experience the t'fillot in a vibrant and communal manner.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Return to Normal

Last Thursday evening, we returned to the normal weekday arrangement of t'fillot. Friday we resumed saying tahanun (putting down of the head). Remember, since the beginning of Hannukah, we did not say tahanun, and we inserted into the amidah a passage about the holidy of which we were in the midst. Additionally, we encountered rosh hodesh Tevet (New moon of Tevet) which meant we also included the ya'aleh v'yavoh section appropriate to those two days.

With the return to a "normal" davening, I believe that it gives us the opportunity to refocus our energies on the davening that appears before us every day in the siddur. It is not uncommon to hear that davening becomes stale when saying the same words repeatedly. I'll admit, I do get excited any time we have additions to the amidah that are related to our location in the calendar, as it provides the framework for a bit of a change in the text of davening. That excitement however, brings a greater appreciation to the normal davening. It allows me to refocus on the words, and I'd like to offer you all the opportunity to do the same.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hannukah Tension

Throughout the ongoing week of Hannukah, we insert into each recitation of the Amidah a special passage that references and recalls the festival which we are currently celebrating. We commonly think of Hannukah as a holiday about a simple jug of oil that miraculously lasted for eight times longer than expected. We grew up with stories about the joy of the light increasing each night, the miracle growing with each passing day, and the like.

However, if you look closely there is a significant tension between the oil story which receives only a few lines in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), and the military victory that preceded. The gemara only delves into Hannukah while in the middle of discussing which materials are suitable for lighting one's home on Shabbat. The Rambam, in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Megila v'Channukah Chapter 3 Hilkhot 1 and 2 writes about the military victory. In chapter 4 he discusses the appropriate procedures for lighting candles. The litugical insertion is primarily about a military victory, as are the Psalms of Hallel which are also recited throughout Hannukah. Why are we so concerned about the eight days, why would the holiday not be seven days like Passover? According to the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, Hannukah was originally compensation for the missed Sukkot offerings of that year. Finally, the rededication of the Temple and establishment of a Jewish monarchy which would last for nearly 200 years cannot be ignored.

I do not want to diminish the importance of the story of the oil. I also do not want to discourage the ideas that the light of Hannukah are kindled during the part of the year when daylight was scarce, and therefore it brings light into our lives. There are plenty of similar stories that are told surrounding the holiday, and my intention is not to stifle them either. Rather, I want to point out a real tension in the halakhic literature and liturgy that must be seriously considered even as we enjoy the national celebration of Hannukah. My Hannukah blessing is that we should all be able to critically analyze t'fillot, that they should grow in meaning and depth for all of us.

Hannukah sameach.