One of the things that this season does to me is to remind me to read the small print in the siddur, to pay attention to details that my eye is trained to ignore during much of the year.
Since most siddurim / prayerbooks are used for a variety of days – weekdays, Shabbat, holidays – they are designed to reflect the changes in our daily tefillah routine. During the holiday month of Tishrei in particular, there are changes almost every day, which require you to pay careful attention to the smaller print.
If one goal of the Tishrei holidays is to make us all pay more attention, then for sure these subtle changes in our daily prayer are helpful. Even the extra le’eila which we say from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur manages to keep me just a wee bit more focused for some time.
And that, of course is a good thing: tefillah / prayer should never be by rote. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:13):
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּבַתְּפִלָּה. וּכְשֶׁאַתָּה מִתְפַּלֵּל, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע, אֶלָּא רַחֲמִים וְתַחֲנוּנִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּרוּךְ הוּא
Rabbi Shim’on said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the Amidah, And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God.
In tefillah, as in life, it’s the details that are important. While it is easy to think that the essential part of tefillah is the recitation of the words, the mishnah suggests that we have to actually be paying attention. True tefillah requires pouring our souls into the pages of the siddur, such that the yearning for compassion, the honest gratitude, the heartfelt praise and requests which are the building blocks of tefillah come from an honest place and can actually be felt by the davener.
It is not the outward symbolism which matters; not the broad strokes of being in shul (synagogue) and standing in silence and reciting the words; rather, it is the internal details. It is the richness of the ancient Hebrew idiom and how it lands on our souls which drive honest prayer. It is, in fact, the small print, laden with the special features of the season, which matters most.
And when we recall beloved family members and friends who are no longer with us, on days of reciting Yizkor prayers, the details of their lives are the most essential items.
What makes a person special and unique? It is not their appearance, or what car they drive or the color of their kippah. It is the intangible details: their deeds, their sayings, their values, their relationships.
You might have heard recently about so-called “click chemistry,” because three biochemists just received the Nobel Prize for their work in the area. Click chemistry is a relatively new chemical process which allows us to build new molecules with particularly desirable functionality using small, organic building blocks, somewhat akin to molecular Lego pieces.
Without getting too technical, the research of these Nobel laureates has made it possible to reliably build new molecules from these building blocks in a way that is cost-effective and has a high rate of success. The process will supplant older, more cumbersome and expensive methods of synthesizing such molecules. This will enable chemists to easily produce and test a whole new range of pharmaceuticals, polymers, proteins and other organic compounds. It is truly a remarkable breakthrough.
Now, the chemical engineer in me is inspired by this new molecular technology.
But I also find the idea of being able to assemble easily new molecules from building blocks appeals to me from, shall we say, a more homiletical perspective. As people, we are more than the sum of our parts; and yet we are constructed from the very same types of molecules that can be easily assembled through click chemistry.
We are, of course, exceedingly complex creatures. We are shaped by all of the forces around us: the people we meet, the books we read, the experiences we share with others, the love we receive and give, and all of the other tiny ways we fill our days and our lives. And all of these things, all of these minuscule moments and interactions are sifted through our basic structure, coloring all of the intricate pieces of our personalities.
With human personalities, of course, it is the details that matter. Our external features are not so different from one another; our internals are much more complicated. We have different strengths and creativities, different talents and hobbies and favorite foods and leisure activities. We are drawn to a range of entertainments and political pursuits, tastes in clothes and art and philosophy. We each have individual ways in which we express ourselves and fashion our lives.
A lazy search of the Internet led to somebody else’s back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many molecules there are in the human body, and that answer is perhaps on the order of 1027, or a one followed by 27 zeroes.
Much of that is water, but a good chunk of them are organic molecules, of the sort that are put together with the basic building blocks, the simplest Legos, of life.
But that is what makes us human: the great complexity of the chemical system of which we are made. Our memories, our knowledge, our experiences, remembered and forgotten, are all encoded into that organic soup of tiny, encrypted chunks of living matter. The variation of these codes, which make up our genetic material, yield people who may indeed look quite similar, but are vastly different in behavior and thought.
A friend recently reminded me that the events from our past which we remember are not necessarily those things which others remember about us. That is, the picture of our lives is far more complex than what we see. This also suggests that all of those details, all of those interactions which we can recall are probably less than half of the story of our lives.
That is what makes those who were special to us so memorable; why they take up so much of our brain space and emotional energy: the great complexity of our parents and grandparents, the mysteries of our siblings, the tender mercies of our spouses.
Tomorrow morning, we start reading Parashat Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah once again. We return to Creation ex nihilo, when God begins to speak, and the whole world comes into existence, from a point of light to the full flowering of Earthly bounty. You may recall that at the end of each day, the Torah tells us that God saw that what He had created was good.
It’s almost dismissive in its simplicity. Of course the creation of the sun and moon and stars was good. Naturally the flowering plants and trees and birds and bees and alligators and capybaras were good. But they were also incredibly complicated.
The creation of humans, male and female, on the sixth day is described as tov me-od, very good, something which might make us raise our eyebrows, given what we know about humanity.
Life, Creation, cannot be merely good or bad, but rather full of contradiction and complexity and an unfathomable myriad of details. The Torah (or, one might say, the Priestly author to whom scholars attribute the first chapter of Bereshit) seems to fail here in its terseness. It merely gives a social-media “like” when an encyclopedic excursus is called for.
And as we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of the souls, I hope that we can endeavor to remember not just the broad strokes of their lives, but also the details, all the ways in which they were special.
We should remember the parts of their personality that they gave us: the empathy he showed an elderly neighbor when inviting him for a meal, the pride she took in tending to her garden, the loyalty he had to his barber, her attention to detail, like ensuring the brass banister was always polished to a shine.
We should remember the ways in which they provided for us: the household economy, the food, the gatherings, in setting a beautiful table for the celebrations / semaḥot he arranged, all of the schlepping she did from school to game to recital and on and on.
We should remember the things that they said when we need to be uplifted: the words of encouragement and inspiration, the moment of shared joy when you got that acceptance letter and the tears during your bad breakup, the hugs and the kisses and sometimes the little push out the door that we needed.
We should remember the values they taught us, the Jewish rituals they loved, how he would make his special haroset recipe, how she loved to sing and tell stories and family lore. We should remember those times around the seder table, or in the kitchen, or in the Sukkah, or in the synagogue.
And we should remember that, as much as we recall of those who are no longer with us, there was ever so much more about them than we could possibly ever have known. All those many, many details encoded into who they were; all of the small-print details which made them special to others and to all those who knew them.
In broad strokes, we all had parents, and people whom we have loved but are no longer with us. But it is the details of who they were which made them special and unique. And those are the things which we should recall at this time.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret, 10/17/2022.)