Thursday, September 20, 2012

Just when you think you know the prayers . . .

The ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are know in Hebrew as "Eseret Y'mai Teshuva," or the "Ten Days of Repentance." Actually this is somewhat of a misnomer as the ten days includes the holidays themselves, so in reality there are seven days between them.

In any event, during these days we are called upon to examine our behavior more closely than usual, to express regret for our failings, whether by commission or omission, and to seek forgiveness from God and, more importantly, those we've hurt. As if to heighten our awareness that this period is not to be treated as "normal" time, the Rabbis introduced a series of changes into the daily liturgy. These changes are kind of subtle, for if they were major, they'd be written in a different part of the Siddur (prayer book). But they're not. They're integrated into the regular prayers. This forces you to pay more attention to your prayers than you ordinarily do. You can't be on automatic pilot. That's my problem.

To be exact, there are four inserts to the Shemona Esrey prayer. Two of these come in the first two blessings and two in the last two blessings. Then there are two places words are substituted for the regular words, at the end of the third and eleventh blessings. The former is the most significant where "Hamelech Hakadosh" (the Holy King) is substituted for "Ha'el Hakadosh" (the Holy God). If you don't make this substitution, your prayer is considered invalid, you have not fulfilled your prayer obligation, and you must repeat it.

There is also a very slight change to the kaddish. One extra word is added. Instead of saying "l'elah min kal berchata . . ." (above all blessings) you say "l'elah u'lelah min kal berchata" (above and above all blessings), doubling up on the word "l'elah." (Some versions leave out the vov to read it as "l'elah l'elah".

Well, needless to say, after davening consistently three times a day for the past nearly 11 months, any change in my routine is tough to handle. In my first effort at leading prayers since Rosh Hashana, I forgot to add the extra "l'elah" and was promptly corrected by the congregation. Yesterday I made the same mistake again and was again promptly corrected. Today I hit them all.

Two days ago I closed my eyes and prayed the afternoon prayer. I was feeling kind of spiritual, shaking back and forth and thinking about how the blessings connected to my life. When I was done I realized I'd completely and utterly forgot every single addition and emendation made during these times. My prayer was invalid since I'd forgotten to say "hamelech hakadosh." I felt idiotic, but I repeated it nonetheless. Today the same thing happened but when I got up to "hamelech hakadosh" I realized my omission and made all the proper changes thereafter.

The idea of these liturgical changes is to heighten our sensitivity to what we are saying in our prayers. On a broader level, it's to throw a curve into our regular patterns of living, and through saying slightly different and additional words, move us toward greater awareness about how we live our lives. The message is: change always starts with small steps. But sometimes even those first steps are not easy to make.

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