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September 11, 2015  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

The melody of prayers

By RABBI DANIEL TREISER Temple B’nai Israel, Clearwater

These High Holy Days are filled with some of the most beloved, most wellknown prayers. That’s due in no small part to the melodies that accompany them. Kol Nidre, Avinu Malkeinu and Shema Koleinu – each evoke a special connection to these sacred days with both their words and their beautiful melodies. For Yom Kippur in particular, though, there is another set of prayers that evoke the power and impact of this sacred day. They are, you might say, the heart of the matter. And interestingly, for me at least, their power doesn’t come from a melody, but rather their words themselves.

The Vidui is the selection of the Yom Kippur liturgy where we confess the sins of the past year. The Vidui is repeated in traditional services as many as 10 times. It is composed of two major sections: the short Vidui Ashamnu (“We have sinned”) and the long or complete Vidui, Al Chet Shechatanu (“for the sin we have committed…”). Both are said in the first person plural- we committed these sins. At a time of personal reflection, it seems odd that we confess them together. When I was younger, I remember thinking, “Why am I saying I did that? I didn’t!” The reason for this is threefold. First, our community is also responsible for seeking forgiveness, and very often we as a community make these mistakes, so we must confess them together. Second, there is anonymity in confessing with the congregation. I can admit out loud I committed a sin, without being embarrassed that I am the only one confessing it. And third, it allows us to seek forgiveness for a sin we might have committed and do not remember. These prayers remind us not only of our actions, but of the importance and necessity to be a part of a community at this holy time of year.

While Ashamu is an alphabetical list of sins listed from Aleph to Tav, Al Chet Shechetanu is a unique list of more than 40 different sins we might commit. Of all these sins at least nine on the traditional list are directly related to the use of our words (i.e., “…the sin we have committed against You with gossiping tongues, through deception and lying, through impurity of our lips,” etc.) And several others are easily committed through speak- ing. Perhaps there are so many sins connected with speech because they happen so easily. Words can fly from our mouths before we think about their impact, the potential to make change or to hurt.

An ancient Midrash teaches, “The tongue is like a bow and words like arrows. If a person raises a sword to kill someone and then changes his mind, he can return the sword to its sheath. But the arrow, once it has been fired, cannot be called back.” Throughout our history, we’ve been taught to guard against, lason hara, “the wicked tongue,” speech that hurts others through lies, gossip, or malicious intent. The classic work identifying the different types of hurtful speech is called Chafetz Chayim, which derives its name from Psalm 34:13-15: “Who is the one who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” If the one who desires life avoids hurtful speech, what does it say about us when we use our words poorly?

As we enter another election cycle, the painful words fly easily from the lips of candidates and pundits. Even worse, they trickle down to us, the electorate, convinced that “we” are right, and “they” are wrong. Our Jewish community felt this perhaps even more strongly in the debate surrounding the negotiations with Iran. The fracture in the Jewish community on the national level as well as the local was painfully on display, as Jewish senators were called traitors for their reasoned, well-thought out views. As we continue through this year, we must remember an important teaching from our heritage. The word for “Truth” in Hebrew is Emet, spelled Alef, Mem, Tav, the first, middle and last letters of the alphabet. No one side has the complete truth. We only find truth when we embrace that which is on the left, on the right, and the center.

As we enter the year 5776 and pray for a year of peace, safety and security for us all, let us be mindful of our own words and deeds. May we resist the urge to use our words for dishonest and hurtful purposes. May we respect, value, and listen to those with differing opinions. May we show tolerance for all. G’mar Chatimah Tovah- May we all be Inscribed for a Good Year.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board.

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