Erica Brown

Touched By Angels

It is hard to pray. It is a privilege to pray. We have a need to pray.

And now we have a gift to help us overcome some of the obstacles to prayer as we start the New Year. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a Lord and chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, has graced the pages of the machzor with his introduction and commentary in the new “Koren Rosh HaShanah Machzor.” The elegance of his prose and his capacity to capture complex spiritual and historical ideas with piercing clarity shines in this machzor. His writing has an angelic-like quality that uplifts and transports us to larger, more transcendent worlds.

This book marks, by my count, Rabbi Sacks’ 25th publication and is part of an oeuvre that has strengthened the practice and long-range impact of Judaism, and not only for the Jewish people. Rabbi Sacks has taken on many of the thorniest issues facing the modern human condition with a compelling voice for faith that has influenced the general public as well as noted theologians, scientists and politicians from all faiths and from none. He makes us proud to be Jewish in both elemental and sophisticated ways through extracting and distilling Judaism’s wisdom for the ages. In highlighting the universal themes that emerge from our tradition, Rabbi Sacks promotes the meaning and majesty of Judaism as the foundation of all world religions.

The machzor and the “Koren Sacks Siddur,” however, are more particularistic in their orientation. They are designed predominantly for use within the Modern Orthodox movement, although I know of one large Conservative congregation that has adapted the Siddur for use because of the compelling nature of its commentary.

But why a new machzor? What’s wrong with the old one? Inspiration is subjective; voicing the aspirations of a movement is not. Other translations on congregational shelves have not represented Modern Orthodoxy, not in the accuracy of translation, not in the emphasis on religious Zionism or the integration of general wisdom. Koren has done an immense service to Modern Orthodoxy in finally offering alternatives. Now it’s up to us to insist that synagogues purchase the liturgical tools that represent the movement.

The Reform movement also recently issued a new prayerbook. Rather than question the need, we need to view these contributions as a statement of the relevancy and importance of prayer’s translation into idioms and concepts with a crisp, modern voice that help us petition and cry, express joy in community and surface our own masked vulnerabilities.

Koren Publishers in Jerusalem designed this machzor, as stated in the preface, to “mitigate the trepidation” with which we enter the High Holy Days and to “highlight their transformative potential.” Any machzor can make that claim, but Koren backs it up with features that are unique to the machzor, facilitating greater comprehension and accessibility. The cream pages make reading easier on the eye and the typesetting breaks up a prayer phrase-by-phrase rather than through block paragraphs, enabling it to be read with proper pauses and emphases. Unlike any other prayer translation, the Hebrew text is on the left-hand side, the page to which our eyes naturally turn. This may seem insignificant but it communicates in a powerful way the primacy we place on the Hebrew language in prayer as the ancient, holy and dramatic glue that has held our people together and weds our textual tradition to our homeland. Translations that privilege English make their own statement.

Personally, I feel limited by the cramped text and extensive use of italics in other translations. Prayer should feel expansive and so should the texts that convey prayers. They should have sufficient white space to promote reflection and extend an invitation for us to put ourselves in their pages. Christian prayerbooks from the 15th century used illustrations of people whose faces were left blank so that petitioners would insert their own faces in the picture. The lesson: we have to put ourselves in these texts to squeeze out their meaning.

A machzor is not predominantly about formatting. It is about content, and on that front the “Koren Rosh HaShanah Machzor” does not disappoint. Rabbi Sacks’ introduction helps us understand the central themes of the High Holy Day prayers and the foundations of Rosh HaShanah. He argues that prayer on these days should be “life-changing” but often isn’t because, “The prayers are long. Some of them, especially the piyyutim, the liturgical poems with their elaborate acrostics and obscure wordplays, are hard to understand. Others use imagery that can seem remote.” How true. Kingship, in particular, is a remote image for most readers, except perhaps for him and his English flock. Those of us without a royal family will have to rely on his guidance.

Rabbi Sacks weaves together great sweeps of history with small ritual details that enlighten us on matters elusive or confusing. In his notes on the actual prayers, he provides helpful historical and spiritual nuggets of wisdom. Liturgical commentary is best when it serves as a propaedeutic to prayer rather than a distraction.

One of the guiding principles in his list of answers to the question: “What does Rosh HaShanah say to us? … How can it transform our lives?” is (his seventh reason out of nine) that “…our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make.”

It is difficult to say if this is the greatest work of art that he has ever made. Given his prolific writing career, it is hard to believe this book will be his last (his book “The Great Partnership” on the relationship of religion and science came out almost in parallel to the machzor). But Rabbi Sacks’ eloquent interpretations will certainly help us turn our prayers into works of art this New Year. Many thanks. 

Dr. Erica Brown, a writer and educator, is scholar in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).