Parashat Nitzavim/Vayeilech

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30
September 8, 2007 / 25 Elul 5767

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond,
Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, JTS

Every so often it seems to me that there are just too many words in the siddur. I say this as someone who loves both prayer and the prayerbook and as one who has a good grasp of what the prayers actually mean. Indeed, in an oft-quoted statement by R. Joseph Karo, author of the monumental code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, says, "Better a few supplications recited with intention than many recited without it." A fine young Orthodox scholar, Seth Kadish has argued passionately that when it comes to prayer less is often more. He suggests that, by distinguishing between those prayers that are truly obligatory and those that are the result of centuries of gradual accretion, individuals pray only those prayers that they can recite in a focused and heartfelt manner.

Both Karo and Kadish speak words of great wisdom. The sheer volume of the service often alienates even the most well-intentioned congregant, and we would do well—particularly in this season of liturgical turgidity that is almost upon us—to find ways to reduce the length of our services. And yet . . . Many years ago I was teaching a class about the Pesuke De-Zimra, the psalms that are recited as a prelude to the morning service. Someone opined that this portion of the service was boring and that we would do well to shorten it. I responded by likening the situation to someone who needs to have a root canal done. He has the choice of going to either of two equally skilled endodontists. One promises that he can complete the procedure in one visit, while the other says that two sessions will be required. Presumably any sane individual would elect to have the procedure done in one visit. However, I concluded, the fact remains that by choosing this option, one has not replaced the painful with the pleasant; one has simply reduced the duration of the pain. Similarly, reducing the length of a portion of the service that is considered boring will reduce the duration of the boredom. It will not, however, address the root problem—pardon the pun—which is how to make the prayer experience an inspiring one. In what follows, I want to reflect on a debate concerning one aspect of the prayers recited on Rosh Hashanah. I’d like to use that debate as a means of thinking about the way in which it is the very quantity of the words of prayer that are vital to creating a meaningful prayer experience.

The Musaf, or additional service on Rosh Hashanah, includes three blessings that are not recited as part of any other service during the year (although historically two of them were recited as part of the liturgy for public fasts). They are Malkhiyot or Malkhuyot (Sovereignties); Zikhronot (Remembrances); and Shofarot (Soundings of the Shofars). The fifteenth-century Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo believed that contrary to Maimonides, there are not thirteen core principles of Jewish faith but only three. He argued that the Malkhiyot-Zikhronot-Shofarot triad of Rosh Hashanah liturgy is meant to serve as a catechism for these principles: (1) that God exists (Malkhiyot); (2) that there is divine providence together with recompense for our deeds (Zikhronot); and (3) that God revealed God's self to Israel at Sinai (Shofarot).

The essential structure of each blessing consists of ten verses from Scripture describing God in the role that is highlighted in the blessing. Three verses are cited from the Pentateuch followed by three from Psalms, another three from the prophets, and finally a concluding verse from the Pentateuch once again. This, at least, is the form these blessings take in the traditional mahzor, in accordance with the majority view expressed in the Mishnah. There are however, several other views recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. One is that seven verses per blessing suffice. Another requires only three for each. A third requires only that each blessing have at least one verse; while a fourth deems it sufficient to express the theme of each blessing and then to say, "And so it is written on your Torah.”

What motivates the minimalists to take their dissenting positions? A passage in the Talmud suggests a simple and practical explanation: in an era before printed books, few had access to the text of the High Holiday prayers—prayers that were said, let us remember, only once a year—which meant that only those who had them memorized could recite them properly. This seems to have had two consequences: a ruling that the prayer leader could recite the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah in behalf of the congregation and a number of lenient views that made it more possible for the individual to recite the Musaf on his own.

However, let us now turn the question on its head. Given that each verse only repeated the point made by the previous ones, why was it necessary or desirable to include many verses?

Here I turn to an observation made in a book by James Kugel, The God of Old. He notes, without claiming to be able to explain why, that the Bible speaks constantly of God as one who responds to the cry of the oppressed. The Bible does this, Kugel emphasizes, even though everyday experience must have indicated to the authors of the Bible, as it does to us, that this is not the case. Why then insist on something so obviously subject to empirical rejection?

I do not know the answer to Kugel's question either. What I do know is that in a faith community we often choose to believe not because the facts bear out our belief but because we will ourselves to be believers. Rationalists might argue that we are simply evading the stark realties of the "real world" but the world of belief and spirit is founded on the proposition that rationality and empirically verifiable experience do not contain all the truth that there is to be found in the world. Always, but especially in our time and place, an act of belief is an act of choice. We choose to believe in the very possibility of belief.

This, perhaps, helps explain the value of seemingly redundant verses, claims, and declarations in our prayers. To speak the language of faith is to wrestle with the evidence of our minds and our senses. An honest believer does not say that he or she has an explanation for all the evidence to the contrary; rather there is conflicting data and, still, there is the possibility of belief. The repetitive act of declaring one's faith dramatizes the dynamic and experientially contingent nature of faith. In the same moment that we believe, the seed of doubt is present as well. It is perhaps more meaningful to talk not of faith but of faithfulness. A life of belief is a series of moments of epiphany linked by others of struggle and doubt.

The Musaf of Rosh Hashanah describes Hashem, as some of us call the God of Israel, as a just but benevolent ruler whose will has been revealed to us. Is this so? The Musaf does not argue the questions logically or philosophically. It says, in effect: repeat after me—it is so, it is so. And perhaps, when you have said it for the tenth time, in some way your way of seeing God, yourself, and the world will have been sufficiently altered, so that what seemed impossible nine verses ago now seems to have a glimmer of truth. Perhaps, when we have finished those verses, we will give ourselves permission to believe as true what seems so often to be so unlikely: that the world is a place of goodness and order, that it has a master, and that that master loves and cares for us.

Could all this be an illusion? Yes. But we must decide: shall we believe nothing for fear of being the fool who believes that which is not true, or shall we accept the risk inherent in the act of belief lest we lose the gift of belief itself?

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Eliezer Diamond

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.