It happens every year. People come to services for Rosh Hashanah and remember how meaningful Judaism can be in their lives. They fast and pray fervently on Yom Kippur and come up to the rabbi to talk about their great revelation: They are Jews and are going to start coming to services, classes and programming. They come to the sukkah multiple times and dance with passion on Simchat Torah.
But within a few weeks, things start to come up in their lives and they miss a service or class, and then another, and within a couple of months, the wholehearted commitment they had made to themselves and to God to renew their Jewishness has been put on the shelf … until the next year, when the pattern repeats itself.
And so it goes: always starting with the most honest passion and best of intentions, followed by a waning of participation due to involvement in secular activities. It’s a good thing we pray on Kol Nidre for these vows to be forgiven before we even make them!
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The first word of the Torah gives us a hint as to how to help ourselves and others keep our commitments.
“Bereshit” is usually translated as “in the beginning.” But, we are taught, if you play anagrams with the letters, you can create the phrase “Shirat av,” meaning “father’s song.” The implication is that the universe is created with the music of God.
But it can be opened up even more. Av can be broken into the letters alef and bet, the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, creating the phrase “Shirat Alef bet” (the song of the alef bet). It is through this understanding that I believe we can find a key to renewing Jewish practice and thought and keeping the passion of the High Holy Days alive throughout the year.
Jewish tradition teaches that each letter has a song representing the values and teachings that it holds within Judaism. In fact, “Sefer Yetzirah” (The Book of Creation, a kabbalistic text attributed by Saadia Gaon in the 10th century to the patriarch Abraham) says that the 22 Hebrew letters are the architectural plans of the universe. “Sefer Yetzirah” goes into detailed explanation of these “songs” of the letters and how they actually create existence on a metaphysical level.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s book, “Sefer HaMiddot” (The Book of Attributes) — often referred to as “The Aleph-Bet Book” — demonstrates the concept of the power of letters more simply. The book is a series of aphorisms, organized alphabetically, about how to live as a Jew. Each letter becomes a guide in our self-development and a pathway back to Judaism. It is that pathway that is needed to keep ourselves aligned with the commitments we make on Yom Kippur.
And let’s be honest, we need the help. The last few decades have seen a tremendous number of conversions in America from Judaism — not conversions to another religion per se, but leaving the Jewish practices in favor of secularism. The devotion to religious customs is often been replaced by a devotion to a political party or secular work.
But the Jewish soul yearns to live as a Jew, and is reminded of that fully as we experience the High Holy Days (especially in prayers such as Ashamnu, where each letter is used as a reminder of each mistake we have made). It aches to return home to its Jewish roots, which is why we always seem to make that annual commitment around this time of year to get back involved in
Jewish practices and the community of temple life.
The Zohar (a pivotal text of kabbalah) teaches us that each soul has its own letter of the Torah, which is expounded upon further in “Megaleh Amukot” (a 17th-century text by Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira), which states, “Every one of Israel has for his soul one letter of the 600,000 letters of Torah.” Each of us has a letter, each of us a song. We just need to find our letter, find our song, and that will keep the fire of our own Judaism alive.
The same questions from Yom Kippur about why we are really here, what we were created to do, what our purpose is, must be constantly asked again and again. Like “Bereshit,” the first word of the Torah, which is repeated every year at Simchat Torah, we must constantly examine and re-examine the important questions in our lives … and none of those answers will come from the secular world, but rather from the path of our ancestors, the Judaism that we connect to during the holidays.
When we can each be aware of our own letter, our own place in existence and how it sings with the rest of the letters, the rest of the souls of the world, then we will truly have the sound of heaven here on Earth.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha (nersimcha.org) in Westlake Village and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.
Original article published October 8, 2015 by the Jewish Journal