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Drash Alenu Lishabayach

Alenu Lishabayach

Drash, July 1997, Parshat Balak, Tammuz 5757 by  David Cohen


Before I introduce Alenu Lishabayach, I want to say a few words of thanks for the support given to this proposal that I suggested a short while ago. This support is most welcome coming from the Rabbi, the President and the Ritual Committee and its Chairs.


What we are inaugurating today is four or five minutes of presentation on a prayer of an individual’s choosing from our liturgy. The presentation may deal with the person’s interpretation of the prayer, why it is important to the presenter, the memories or emotions the prayer conveys, even the doubts a person might have about the prayer or its interpretation by our various branches. Some of us will draw on our own library. The Synagogue will also provide source material. I am hopeful that our congregation can work out an easy and efficient lending library plan.


The key is to be engaged and interested. This is not a Ph.D. oral exam nor is it what I witnessed in a Lubavitcher setting on a Shabbat in a foreign land as the young lads sweated out their answers to pointed and complex questions. This is meant to be friendly to the presenter and one’s fellow congregants.
For me this program reflects a high value placed on congregational participation in new ways, and a high value placed on education and learning. For me that is part of our efforts at strengthening spirituality -- an essential part of the life of our community.

Becoming familiar with the prayers in either Hebrew or English, or any other language, helps make us aware of a powerful liturgy drawn from the Tanach that guides us in our most troubling and perplexing times. An effort that guides us towards the highest standards of morality and ethics and one that steeps us deeply in our Jewish history and civilization. It reminds us daily of the Exodus and our responsibility as a community to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and free the captured. It binds acts of holiness to acts of lovingkindness.
All of this requires an effort on our part and part of that manageable effort encompasses reflection and repetition.

     These qualities have intrinsic merit. Alone they justify this effort.

     I believe there are additional congregational values to be served by the program we formally initiate today.

     1.      It will increase interest and knowledge about individual prayers, opening up possible study and discussion in our congregation.
     2.      It will celebrate the pluralism of our congregation. There will be diversity in our interpretations and within our unified congregation we can accept difference.
     3.      It will help bridge some of the Hebrew-English issues by drawing on both languages.

     For the opening prayer I have chosen Alenu for a mix of reasons.

Alenu is special to Tifereth Israel. I have davenned in many congregations during my travels in this country and outside of it. Never have I heard and Ahl Cayn sung with the intensity it is sung here. Indeed I cannot ever recall hearing Ahl Cayn sung anywhere. Ours gives spirit and voice to the meaning of the words "We put our hope in You." Congregants who have moved away have told me that is what they miss most about not davenning at TI.

The commentators write that Joshua composed Alenu after he led Israel across the Jordan. This declaration of faith and dedication was part of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service in the Talmudic era. (Think that in our own congregation we have begun the effort at making congregants comfortable with bowing down and acknowledging our thanks to God and not delegating that act just to those on the Bimah. ) In medieval times it began to be part of the regular daily and Shabbat service to strengthen the faith in the oneness of God and resist the idolatry of the environments in which we Jews live. So it too is said for repetition and emphasis three times daily.

When I go to a Shabbat service abroad the choice is limited so it is invariably Orthodox, so I recall my childhood days when Alenu was rushed through silently except for Venemahr as it is in these Orthodox shuls.

Here we should go to the translation in the Orthodox Siddur. Sim Shalom fudges the translation but what it says in the Orthodox Siddurim is the following: "For God has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not positioned us like the families of the earth." One Orthodox interpretation, the one used in the Art Scroll Siddur says that "God does not punish gentile nations until they have reached the full quota of sin, beyond which he no longer extends mercy. Then He brings retribution upon them, often wiping them out." Thus the historic mumbling -- or is it silent racing -- of Alenu by the Orthodox is tied to the fear that the authorities and the anti-semites will hear us as we say Alenu.

A wise Orthodox scholar and rabbi, Sampson Raphael Hirsch who lived in Germany in the 19th century, said that in asking all to obey God’s commandments we are not calling for conversion but in accepting God as the universal God with the responsibility to obey the Noahhide laws.

We who are comfortable in the U.S., or in England, do not fear the authorities or the anti-semite. A spirited Alenu was sung in a Liberal (also known as Reform) congregation in which I davenned a month ago, one in which women and men wore large Talissim.

So we can reflect without fear from the passages from Isaiah, Zechariah, Devorim and Shemot which are part of Alenu. We can internalize some and practice Tikkun Olam which is specifically cited in the Alenu. That is our responsibility to improve the world, to fix what is wrong and broken, to strive "to perfect the universe."
 In my personal davenning I have taken to adding to Alenu Arthur Green’s words. Green writes of a God

          who has made the world a web of languages and peoples,
          endowing all of them with the ability to know God’s ways.
          And when they act in kindness, and turn away from cruelty,
          and call to God in their own tongues, God listens to their prayer.

As we bend the knee we come to recognize that we have something to live for. Living a life of righteousness, justice, kindness and compassion -- the words we say as we wrap the Tefillin around our hand each weekday morning -- we reach for being the true witnesses of God.