Sermon: Erev Rosh Hashanah: I feel Sick Already

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 30 September 2014

Last year on Rosh Hashanah we announced that Alyth @ Home was about to begin.  This was a series of what turned out to be twenty nine meetings at homes all around North West London at which hundreds of Alyth members spoke with each other and the Alyth clergy and members of the Shul staff team.  Our conversations were mostly on the theme of what inspires us in Judaism. What you said was noted and is turning into a report to help us to build a more inspiring Shul together.


We had some great moments together.  I especially remember one evening when the conversation turned to the inspiration of the High Holy Days. A couple of the twenty or so people at that evening said that what inspired them was exactly what we are doing right now, being together as a community entering Rosh Hashanah, and the time that we will spend together tonight, tomorrow, maybe Friday and on Yom Kippur.


At that meeting I let slip that I have spent a good part of the past year and a half helping to create a new Reform Machzor for the High Holydays – a new Days of Awe.   You have in your hands the first result – a trial service for Erev Rosh Hashanah.


The response of one of the people at that meeting was short and definite – and I have her permission to share it tonight.  She said “I feel sick already.”    As a regular prayer who had just about got used to the new Siddur, launched in 2008, she was anything but looking forward to the idea of having the 1985 edition of Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe, so to speak wrenched out of her hands and replaced with something unfamiliar.


There is a perfectly fair question here – why are we doing it?  Back in the early 1980’s Rabbis Jonathan Magonet and Lionel Blue saw their mission in creating their edition of Yamim Noraim to keep to the traditional structure and inner development of High Holidays Jewish liturgy but also to bring new material “both contemporary and traditional to join our present needs to the faith we have received…whatever seems genuine and relevant in the spirituality of our people.”


The previous edition of the Reform High Holidays Machzor had had been published just over thirty years before now reads very archaically.  It comes from a time when the tragedy of the Shoah, the Holocaust, could not be recognised yet in prayer, when the language of prayer in English was far from everyday language, with plentiful thees, thys and thous and hasts and wilts and even the odd verily.  It comes from a time when all worship was communal and so there was no need perceived for the passages in the extensive study anthology ranging over 150 pages of Rabbis Magonet and Blue’s Machzor to provide us with places to go spiritually when we need more than the service going on around us.   The first edition of the Reform Machzor was published in 1842 by David Woolf Marks, the Minister of the then newly formed West London Synagogue of British Jews and went through seven editions to reach the 1985 Machzor, the one which feels familiar in your hands.


Seven editions means that Reform Judaism has at its prayerful centre the understanding that our world does not stand still despite the eternal values with which we negotiate it.   Our Machzorim and of course our Sidurim are purposeful in our hands if then they are moving, and updated each generation and also connect us to the prayer modes and structures of past generations.


Jonathan Magonet and Lionel Blue, the Editors of the 1985 Machzor achieved this with the group of Rabbinic and lay colleagues who assisted them under the chairmanship of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, z’’l.  They updated the translations of prayers, they compiled a great study anthology, they brought remembrance of the Shoah into the Musaf service, they recognised that the State of Israel had been born in the prayers for the community, they made the structures of the services clearer and included creative writings to help guide the way – and overall they defined the experience for Reform Jews of the High Holydays for a generation.


Why then has this new Machzor begun to be written?  A generation has reached adulthood since 1985.  We have come to appreciate services which make their structure clear to us. We value participation in services ever more greatly and want to provide transliteration for those whose Hebrew is not yet up to reading the script.  We want to avoid pinning God to the male gender – and are now used to that since it was introduced in the Festivals Machzor twenty years ago then carried through into our new Siddur seven years ago.  We value the origins and meaning of our prayers being explained and the opportunity to spend time in personal meditation or contemplation afforded by the alternative passages in the book.  In the age of instant access to information we like to have this information presented to us instantly – hence, in a format which actually dates back to fifteenth century Talmud editions, notes and alternative prayers and readings are all on the same page as the liturgy.   We are in a world where the Shoah is a necessary memory but less and less part of what we fear but there are new threats to our Jewish way of life and where our relationship with Israel is maturing and developing – and our new Machzor will need to ground us in these realities.  For all of these reasons and more the Movement for Reform Judaism, Alyth as a leading constituent and we whose prayer life is Reform, need a new Machzor and over the next three years or so we will get it.


Will it be a blessing or will it be something to make us feel sick a on the High Holidays?  This new Machzor is being edited by Rabbis Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Paul Freedman.  I have the privilege of being the Chair of the group of Rabbis, Cantors and lay people which is producing the Machzor and most of the editorial meetings are taking place at Alyth, enjoying the facilities of our library.


One of the purposes of the Machzor group is to find new and traditional material which will answer the questions of today.  Rabbi Colin Eimer for example, suggested a piyyut, a liturgical poem written in 13th Century Gerona to be part of the start of the service.  It is chanted in Sephardi and Mizrachi communities worldwide to begin Rosh Hashanah and portrays us, Israel, as God’s little sister achot k’tanah, using an image from the Song of Songs.  It is new to a Reform Machzor, except in France!  We read it on page 25 of this draft.  It asks us to connect to God for healing from the troubles of the past year.  It exhorts us to have confidence in the future and the possibilities of the year ahead with God leading us on.


In the full version of the Piyyut five of its verses end with the with the words “May this year with its curses by over” –  the last with “May this year with its blessings begin.”  A welcome message for Rosh Hashanah.


Knowing what is a curse and what is a blessing needs the test of time.  They change– the Machzor which is a familiar friend can begin to become stale.  The new Machzor which is not yet familiar can be difficult to bless unless it immediately answers your own concerns.  So too our own lives – they don’t divide so neatly into blessings and curses yet this season is a time to gain perspective and think on what was good and what was tough, what was right and what could have been better.


Begin the journey with this new Draft Machzor, tell us what you think of it and may its words help you to begin to consider the curses of last year and the blessings of this year to come.  May this be the beginning of a good and sweet year.