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Nitzavim/Vayeilech - Rosh Hashana - Ingenuity Supplanted 29 Elul 5783

09/22/2023 08:52:08 AM


When I was a young boy, all of us needed to be more creative and intuitive than we tend to be today. We did not have the wealth and breadth of material goods, food choices, etc. as most of us take for granted today. I was born less than twenty years after the destruction of European Jewry during the horrific years of the Holocaust. Refugees entering the U.S. during and immediately following W.W. II were just that - refugees. Re-building the Jewish people (and the same goes for the State of Israel) didn’t start taking shape in earnest until the mid-1980s. My parents a”h were expert recyclers, intentionally making use  of every part of anything, creatively re-purposing any number of items. We had no concept of living any other way, appreciating our lives, feeling good and genuinely believing we had everything.  Recently, I was reminded of one of the classic examples of something my parents did; I’m sure many other families did the same. As Rosh Hashana approached, we received dozens of greeting cards wishing us a happy and healthy new year. As mentioned above, my parents recycled routinely, it was a part of our daily living fifty years ago! We re-purposed almost every used item for something else. We saved all the cards, punching  punched a hole in the corner of every card, stringing them up in our sukkah as a decoration from wall to wall. It was an activity we all enjoyed – reading the cards while eating in the sukkah, happily speaking about those  who had sent them. Back then we didn’t have the option of buying ready made sukkah decorations, rather innovation kicked in and we enthusiastically made our own.  

Last week, I received a real  Shana Tovah/New Year card actually delivered to our mail box. Thirty years ago, I used to get about two dozen cards; over the years this mailing of personal Rosh Hashanah cards custom has dwindled. This is caused by two factors; the new generation does not send cards and the greeting card industry is on the decline, falling by an average of 3% each year. Due to the decline in purchases, department stores such as CVS and Walmart have been left with no choice but to limit their display space for greeting cards.  Surveys have been conducted to determine why people no longer tend to send cards. There are several reasons why. For some, reasons of ecology and minimizing clutter tend to be the motivator. In general, many people are opting to go paperless, preferring to post a message on Facebook or to send e-correspondence to wish their friends and relatives a happy holiday. This is especially true for younger folks. Truth be told, I received many good wishes through calls, texts etc., but to date I have only received one card! When I saw the sender of that card, I went over to thank him and expressed my appreciation knowing this is somewhat of a fading tradition. He told me he had to go to multiple stores to find New Year’s greeting cards and remarked how scarce they are among the selection and locations to be found. One of the benefits and values to the origination of these cards is they save time calling friends and relatives, especially when speaking with people whom we have not spoken to in a long time. A second benefit is that the wording of well-designed greeting cards transmit the perfect message we want to convey to a specific person in a particular situation. General greeting card messages address the gamut of celebrations of life, including giving of consolation consoling and comfort during a difficult time or sending general wishes.

The liturgy for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is similar to the concept of the perfect messages we need to convey to Hashem. The machzor- מחזור, plural machzorim, is the prayer book which is used by Jews on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many Jews also make use of specialized machzorim on the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. The machzor is a specialized form of the siddur, which is generally intended for use in weekday and Shabbat services. The word machzor means "cycle"; the root ח־ז־ר means "to return". We return and review the same prayers over and over again. The term machzor originally referred to a book containing prayers for the entire year, including weekdays and Shabbos as well as all holidays.  

Over the last century newer publications with commentary and elucidations have been added. In addition, the old English translation has been replaced by today’s colloquial English. Credit must be given to the Birnbaum Machzor, published in 1951, written by Paltiel Birnbaum. This machzor was a major breakthrough for American Jews, helping the davener to relate and connect to the davening in a more meaningful way. We must ask ourselves, is it really the English translation and the commentaries that make our Tefillos desirable to Hashem? Surely it is beneficial to understand what we are saying, and knowing what we are saying does help our focus. In the introduction Birnbaum writes, “For nearly two thousand years the Hebrew prayers have helped to keep the Jews alive, saving them from losing their language and identity.” Indeed, on the Days of Judgment, when we contemplate a turbulent past and an uncertain future, the machzor and the tefilos (prayers) form a stable text to which we can attach our hopes, dreams and aspirations. But the prayers are also complex and confusing, even to the initiated. For over a thousand years—and, indeed, for our personal lifetime—the machzor has been a sure-footed guide. And that’s perhaps another reason why it has lasted as long as it has. When everything around us is changing so rapidly, we often find solace in those things that stay the same. Just as there are certain tunes we associate with the Days of Awe, there are also certain books. For many, the Birnbaum machzor, or any version a person has made their personal choice, will remain with them and continue to be among the greatest, and even the most precious books guiding and leading us.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Tefilla in general and the davening of the Yamim Noraim/ Days of Awe are summed up by The Alter of Kelm. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv (1824-1898)  points out that prayer is unique in the various ways we connect to God. The Gemara Brachos 6a states that Tefilla/Prayer is the essence of דברים העומדים ברומו של עולם  things that stand on the highest plains of the world. He explains the “things” are the words of Tefilla. Omdim, they stand and become the foundation for raising a person to the loftiest plains of the universe. By just saying the words with the proper intent or direction, we can ascend to spiritual heights beyond any other means possible for taking us there.  We do not need to understand everything we are saying to elevate ourselves in order to experience a spiritual high. Rather, it is the prayers themselves, those special, powerful words that will bring us to a place closest to Hashem.

Let this Yom Tov season be the time and place for each and every one of us to be elevated to the highest levels of our world. Allow the words that emanate from our lips, the intentions of our brains, and the passion of our hearts raise us up by merely reciting the words over and over again as they connect within us through the Machzor. Let the words of Chaza”l speak for themselves, granting us all the opportunity to serve the King in health, strength and nachas for another year!

Ah Gutten Shabbos & Ah Guut Yor

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784