Rabbi Neal Borovitz
Saying Aleynu After the Attacks
Friends, over the past seven days I have repeated my belief that our primary answer to terror must be in the words of last week’s torah reading “ Choose Life” choose life by continuing to live our lives as best we can. And so what do I say to you tonight, tomorrow or Wednesday? Should I merely lament the tragedy of the past week or should I teach Torah? Should I put aside what I planned to teach or should I go forth? For better or worse my friends I have chosen to do both. Rather than ignoring what I had written, or pretending that the events of last week did not occur Tonight’s D’var Torah will be an annotated version of what I had prepared before last Tuesday.
The words, “We rise for the Aleynu” is music to the ears of many Jews. When we chant the Aleynu everyone knows that Services are just about over and the Rabbi is done speaking. The fact is we recite the Aleynu so often, that, many of us, knowing it by rote, seldom thing about what we are saying. Tonight I ask your indulgence as I attempt to wrestle with the meaning of this prayer in the context of the attacks upon America last week.
The Aleynu is one of the oldest prayers in Jewish tradition dating at least from the third century when it was written as an introduction to the Malchuyot or Kingship section of the High Holy liturgy. The great 18th century German Jewish Scholar Moses Mendelsohn suggested that since The Aleynu does not mention either the destruction of the Temple or exile that it may in fact pre-date the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the first Christian century. Irrespective of its dating there can be no doubt that this prayer is a statement of Jewish pride. It is a proclamation that The Jewish people is alive! and Adonai is God ! The prayer opens by proclaiming: “ It is our duty to praise The Master of All things and to ascribe greatness to the One who formed the world precisely because “God did not make us like the nations of other lands and give us a portion like that given to other families of human kind.”
I will hear the Aleynu tonight as a call to take responsibility for myself and for others, not to take revenge. It is our call of thanksgiving for the many thousands who were able to escape the fire of terror in both New York and Washington.
The Aleynu prayer is first and foremost a prayer of thanksgiving to God for making us Jews. It was an affirmation on the part of the Rabbis at the beginning of Jewish life under Christian persecution that being a Jew was an honor, not a badge of disgrace. Similar to the blasts of the Shofar, which follow the Aleynu in our Rosh Hashana morning liturgy, the Aleynu is a prayer that is directed inwardly toward God and outwardly to our enemies.
Tonight I sing the Aleynu as a proud American and a humble Jew. I am thankful and proud that I am a better person than either the diabolical master minds or the suicide bombers who they send to Israel daily and who they sent to America last Tuesday. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaDin the day of Judgement. It is the time we are called upon to account for our actions and our in-actions. On this 7th day after the destruction of the World trade center this day of self-reflection each of us must ask What will we do to prevent a recurrence? Will we willingly pay the price in dollars and time to upgrade American security? Will we finally realize that the there will be no free world until we stand up to the modern Amalekites, whom we call terrorists.
Over the centuries there been both Jews and Gentiles who have viewed the Aleynu in a negative light. Since its placement, sometime in the 13th century, into the prayerbook as the concluding prayer for all Jewish worship services, the Aleynu has come under attack from both outside and inside the Jewish community for being too parochial and chauvinistic. One of the lines in the original prayer was directed against paganism. Based upon the words of Isaiah 30 and 45 It stated “They worship vain things and emptiness and pray unto gods who cannot save”
In Medieval Europe Christians, including Jewish converts to Christianity, would use this line of the Aleynu as a pretext for inspiring pogroms proclaiming that the statement was anti-Christian. The attacks soon led Jewish communities to edit out this line. Whether it was anti Christian or not, the Jewish community eliminated this line of the prayer in order not to offend others or to inspire hatred of Christians. When will we hear a call from Muslim leaders demanding an end to Jihad against Jews and Christians. When will America’s so called allies in the Muslim world stop giving moral and in many cases political and physical support to terrorists out of a perverted sense of Muslim solidarity?
One Hundred years ago American Reform Judaism undertook to re-write the entire first paragraph of the Aleynu based upon the feeling that it was too particularistic. The core of the Aleynu, with its proud particularistic affirmation of Jewish faith was replaced by a euphemistic universalism, which the authors attempted to fit to the traditional melody of the Aleynu. This Reform text of the early 20th century is still included in both our Machsor Gates of Repentence and our Siddur Gates of Prayer. Over the course of these Holy days, whenever I ask you to turn to a page out of sequence, to recite the Aleynu, I am choosing to use the traditional text over the classical Reform adaptation. Tonight I want to explain my choice.
My preference for the traditional Aleynu is not merely esthetic, though neither the special High Holy Day melody used in the Shofar ritual, nor the more familiar traditional chant of the Aleynu really fit the Reform text. My choice is also not based solely upon my childhood memories. Rather I believe that the ancient text of the Aleynu speaks poignantly and succinctly to the two-fold challenge of modern Jewish life. Every time we conclude our worship with the traditional Aleynu we simultaneously affirm our Jewish particularism and confirm our faith in a universal God who will, in the words of Zechariah, one day be recognized as the One true Force of the Universe and Source of life.
Following the Aleynu tonight I will for the 30th time read the names of the 11 Israeli Athletes slaughtered at the Munich Olympics. On that day in 1972, when terror forever changed the Olympic games, I was a young Rabbinic student, on my way to my first High Holy Day pulpit. I remember, that at morning services, in Cincinnati Rabbi Fred Gotshalk, the President of HUC, asked all of us, to ignore the Aleynu text, found in the old Union Prayerbook and join him in the traditional Aleynu.For Rabbi Gotshalk, who as a young boy had left Germany just days after Krystalnacht, the Munich massacre was proof text that rather than being an impediment to the realization of the Messianic vision, Jewish pride and particularism was a necessary pre-requisite to the achievement of Universal peace. Just months later in his last interview Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed this same thought when he said, “ It is out of my ramped particularism that my Universalism arises”
In their comments upon the Aleynu, Rabbis Gotshalk and Heschel taught me that its ok to be unique. The Aleynu’s message is that every one of us has a unique portion. As individuals as families as religious communities and as nations we have the right to acknowledge our uniqueness and to respect the differences of others. Mordecai Kaplan another of the great rabbis of the 20th century based his philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism upon this very same premise. For you and me, Jews living in the 21st century the applicability of these 20th century teachings is clear. The Aleynu is, as Rabbi Larry Hoffman has written, the mission statement of Judaism. Our role in life is to be thankful for the privilege of being God’s partner in the creation and redemption of the world. Our responsibility is to teach that equal opportunity is not the same as equal skill equal talent or equal luck. The marvelous mystery of life is that it is not computerized. Input affects output, but in life what we do, does not totally determine what happens to others or to ourselves.
As I mentioned earlier the birthplace of the Aleynu as a prayer is the ritual for the first sounding of the Shofar in a section of the Holy day liturgy called Malchuyot or Kingship. If I am correct in the premise that the Aleynu is a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, My question on this Rosh Hashanah is: What does the Aleynu have to do with the over riding theme of these Holy Days which is Tshuvah or Repentance.
In the preparation of this D’var Torah I came across a commentary by Dr. Saul Wachs, an outstanding contemporary American Jewish educator which has led me to a possible answer to my question. Dr. Wax has noted that the Aleynu prayer is built upon three Biblical verses. One is from Exodus 15 “ Adonai shall reign for ever and ever: The second from Deuteronomy 4: Know this day and set it on your heart that Adonai is God in heaven above and the earth below. The third is from the prophet Zechariah chapter 14 “ Adonai shall be king over all the earth on that day Adonai shall be one and His name One.
Saul Wachs points out that all three of these verses speak of God’s power as a warrior. Each verse comes from a passage where the Hebrew term for War, Milchama, is found. In the Aleynu, the unknown Rabbinic author has turned these verses on their heads. Rather than talk of the destruction of the wicked, the theme of the Aleynu is the destruction of wickedness. There are no inherently evil people there are only people who choose to do evil things and act in an evil manner.For the author of the Aleynu, God’s power is not manifest in a magical Divine ability to crush enemies by force but rather the power of God is revealed when people realize the error of our ways and exercise our power to change. It is our acknowledgement of God as King that empowers God. The Aleynu, Saul Wachs taught is fundamentally a prayer of Tshuvah.
Understood in this context the Aleynu is a daily reminder to Jews to both be thankful for the heritage of Torah and our relationship to God and a reminder that our covenant with God imposes upon us as Jews a number of responsibilities. The Aleynu teaches me that it is our responsibility to never give up hope. It is also our responsibility to not allow hate to become a cancer eating at our souls. The responsibility to always strive to do better; the responsibility to work toward the creation of a messianic age are also explicitly stated in the Aleynu. In addition this awesome prayer commands us to thank God for being a nudge and inspiring us to do the right thing. The Aleynu is a reminder to us that one of the greatest blessings in life is to have a purpose for living.
The events of this past week once again lead me to question the extent of Tshuvah and the premise expressed by Saul Wachs that there are no inherently evil people. I confess tonight, on this day of Judgement that I want revenge for the loss of a friend at the World trade center last week and the murder of thousands of my fellow Americans and my fellow Jews in Israel this past year at the hands of terrorists.
The Aleynu is a reminder to me that I must seek justice not revenge. I cannot allow my hate to lead me to take out my anger on all Muslim Americans. Looking at the Aleynu as a prayer of Tshuvah is a reminder that in spite of our understandable and justifiable anger we must listen to the call of Deuteronomy and Pursue Justice Justly. The singing of the Aleynu is a constant reminder that as Jews we cannot abdicate our responsibilities to God to our fellow Jews or to other human beings. The High Holy days teach us that on the ultimate day of Judgement at the end of time, God will balance the scales of Justice with mercy. As taught in the Aleynu, in the messianic age the righteous will be granted eternal life and the wicked will perish. Until then it is our job to bring those scales as close to equilibrium as we possibly can. We can neither sit passively by, saying that terror is beyond our control, nor can we allow ourselves to become like them. We can, however, as the Aleynu indicates, give thanks to God for giving us Torah as a path by which we can avoid falling into the pit of hatred and by which, we can do our part to bring about the conditions necessary for the vision of Zechariah to be realized. The Aleynu prayer is a mantra we can utter together, as a call to ourselves and to others, to take responsibility for creating a society, in which experiencing God’s Presence, takes precedence over human selfishness and human apathy.
Last Thursday during a discussion at our weekly Torah study class I came to a new realization of the meaning of the verse from Zechariah with which our unknown author of the Aleynu chose to end his prayer.
The verse reads:and is normally translated as “Adonai shall be king over all the earth on that day Adonai shall be one and His name is One”. I suggested to that class that the Hebrew letter vav that is usually translated as and can at times be better translated in English as by or when. If we translate Zechariah’s final vav as when rather than and, the concluding message of the Aleynu becomes Adonai will be One when His name is One. My translation allows that the Messianic age envisioned by Zechariah and the other Biblical prophets will not appear magically. Neither will it come about Apocolypticly as Muslim Christian and even some Jewish fundamentalists believe. Rather, a world that is balanced with both Justice and Mercy will come about only when all peoples are willing to recognize the Oneness of God. There is a Midrash in Bereshit Rabba which teaches, that the reason that Genesis states that all humans descend from one person, is so that we will learn to acknowledge both that all of us are equal and that each of us is unique.
Last Friday night I began my sermon by asking a series of questions. Where was God last Tuesday? Was God AWOL from America? Where was God this past year? Did God go on a Sabbatical and leave the world, in particular the Land ofIsrael in the control of Terrorists? I said that the only reason that I can and I must sing Avinu Malkeynu this year is because I believe that God is not responsible, but we are. I explained that the axiom of my faith in God is that by creating us with free will, God has given us each of us the power to not only make choices which affect me but also the power to interfere in the free will of others. Moreover, the Divine Plea Choose life , found in last week’s Torah reading teaches me that we human beings have the power to interfere in both the free will of other people and in God’s Will as well.
Tonight, I sing the Aleynu, including the words:
“He did not make us like the other nations of other lands and give us a portion like that given to other families on earth”, in honor of the people who carried co-workers and strangers out of the World Trade center last week. I will sing these words of praise in memory of the fire fighters and police who rushed in to help; in memory of the passengers including Jeremy Glick, a young man who grew up in Oradell, who helped to prevent additional disaster by crashing their plane inPennsylvania. I will chant the Aleynu in memory of the thousands of good decent people, like my friend Debby, who died because evil people exercised their free will. I will sing the Aleynu in honor of the millions of Americans who have come forward this week and said Enough!!
I ask all of you to now rise and join in the singing of the Aleynu on page 43 as a reminder that a world balanced with both Justice and Mercy will come about only, when all people are willing to recognize the Oneness of God.
We rise for the Aleynu.