In just a few months, Temple Beth-El will welcome the High Holy Days with a brand new machzor (High HolyDay prayer book). This is the first machzor since “Gates of Repentance,” which was introduced in the 1980s, and while this is a very exciting time, new prayer books are always a little scary. For more than three decades, the “Gates of Repentance” liturgy has defined our High Holy Days, and its rhythms and poetry have become, dare I say it, a tradition. The truth is, whether you are 5 or 50, nobody likes change.
“Gates of Repentance” is the only High Holy Day prayer book I’ve ever used. How can the new prayer books even approach its majesty? Not to worry. A generation ago people were resisting “Gates of Repentance.” How could it ever replace the High Holy Day “Union Prayer Book”? “Ah, the ‘Union Prayer Book.’ Now that was a classic.” That’s the way we are. If we’ve come to accept it as our “tradition,” it must have been given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
We see an example of this so-called “tradition” in this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha. During my childhood, I attended the Junior Congregation of the Fort Lee Jewish Community Center (in Fort Lee, New Jersey) and every time we took the Torah out of the ark, we sang these words: “Vayehi Binsoah Ha-aron Vayomer Moshe: Koomah Adonai viyafutsu oyveycha. Viyanusu misanecha mipanecha.” “When the ark was set out, Moses would say, ‘Advance O Lord/ May your enemies be scattered, And may your foes flee before you.” (Numbers 10:35).
I sang these words almost every Saturday morning, never knowing what they meant. Now, as a Reform rabbi, I’ve said these words only sparingly these past 18 years, on the rare occasions when I’ve attended Orthodox or Conservative services. Yet, when I do hear these words, it’s as if I’m 9 years old again, sitting in the small chapel, watching the older kids take out the Torah, wondering when I would be old enough to take my turn.
But now that I’m aware of what I used to pray, I’m startled by its message. The first part of the verse makes sense: “when the ark was set out.” After all, we’re taking out the Torah, and the passage describes the Ark being set forth.
But after that, the Torah is associated with something far more questionable. “May your enemies be scattered, may your foes flee before you.” Indeed, when we take the Torah from the Ark, should our first thoughts be, “may our enemies be scattered, may our foes flee from our presence”?
We must ask ourselves: do our enemies fear the Torah? Is that why they are scattering? Is the Torah a sign from God to show our enemies that we have been chosen, and thus we must not be opposed? Are we a people under siege – who desire the Torah not for its message, but rather for its power to protect us from our enemies?
Perhaps, as we wandered in the desert, our pagan enemies were overcome by the unity of our faith and conviction. Or perhaps we recite this verse to remind us that the words of Torah give us strength, and that our foes will be transformed by its message of justice and compassion?
Sadly, there may be some who believe that the Torah provides actual protection; that it serves as a shield to deter our foes, and as encouragement to act as we please as long as we claim to stand behind its words. But a more generous interpretation calls upon us to remember that the Torah continues to unite us, sustain us and enrich us so that we might live another day, another generation, another century. As has often been said about our people, our enemies may come and go, but we are still here, bravely carrying forth the Torah’s message to the next generation.
As we move on to the next generation – to the next prayer book, to the next tradition – let us pray that our Jewish lives will never seem static. Let us pray that the words of our Torah, and the words of our liturgy, will continue to challenge and transform us. And may the Torah’s words continue to bring light to both our friends and our enemies, so that one day we will begin to heal this broken world together.