Falling Back on Set Liturgy: Finding Keva at Kavana

This week, Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a famous sequence. The Israelites are told that when they will enter into the land, possess it and settle in it, they shall gather the first fruits of the soil, put them in a basket, bring them to a priest, and make two declarations. The first declaration is an acknowledgement that this is the land that God promised to their ancestors. The second, longer declaration is an abridged telling of all of Israelite history in a few verses, beginning with the words "Arami oved avi...":

This week, Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a famous sequence. The Israelites are told that when they will enter into the land, possess it and settle in it, they shall gather the first fruits of the soil, put them in a basket, bring them to a priest, and make two declarations. The first declaration is an acknowledgement that this is the land that God promised to their ancestors. The second, longer declaration is an abridged telling of all of Israelite history in a few verses, beginning with the words "Arami oved avi...":

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

These verses are already associated with two Jewish holidays: Shavuot (after all, that is when the bikkurim/first fruits were gathered) and Passover (this passage has been dropped, in its entirety, into the Haggadah's maggid section - perhaps you recognize it from there!). And, I believe this passage of Torah -- and the concept it represents, of a set liturgical formula -- also has relevance for us as we head into the High Holidays.

The Mishnah (an early rabbinic law code, codified around 200 CE) lists these verses of Torah -- which are referred to as "Mikrah Bikkurim," "the First Fruits Declaration" -- among the fixed liturgical passages that needed to be recited in Hebrew, word for word. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim chumash explains, (drawing on Mishnah Sotah 7:2-3 and Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7), "At first, those who were able to recite it on their own did so, while those who could not were assisted by a prompter. When the latter group, out of embarrassment, ceased to bring their first fruits, the procedure was changed so that everybody was led by a prompter." In other words, it was so important that every Israelite recite the same words that a system was devised to ensure consistency. Having a single, shared liturgy brought all the Israelites into alignment with one another, affirming their connection with God and their sense of shared history. This is part of the power of set liturgy.

Thinking about this example during this time of year, I hear echoes of so many other fixed liturgies and formulas that are part of our High Holiday liturgy. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will recite over and over again the 13 Attributes of God ("Adonai, adonai, el rachum v'chanun") -- words that Moses was instructed to use in invoking God's presence at times of need and especially forgiveness. On those (and other) days, we recite other Torah verses that are prescribed for regular recitation -- for example, "Shema yisrael..." and "Yevarech'cha...." On the High Holidays specifically, we also repeat, line-by-line, specific prayers composed much later that have come to be important staples of our service, such as Avinu Malkeinu and Shema Koleinu. On Yom Kippur, in our Avodah service, we also recall how, in Temple times, the High Priest was required to be instructed about the intricacies of the atonement ritual each year, with assistants there to prompt him if he forgot the laws and to prod him awake if he nodded off. All of these examples underscore the core idea that when it comes to ritual, there are times when we fall back on set liturgical formulas. This kind of shared liturgy is powerful in its ability to remind us of themes we might not think of on our own, and also functions to unite all Jews across barriers of time and space.

In rabbinic Jewish law, there is a well-known tension between the concepts of keva and kavana. Keva means "fixedness," and refers to the approach we see here with Mikrah Bikkurim: the belief that there are words that need to be recited at specific times and in specific ways. Kavana, on the other hand, means "spontaneity" or "intention" and underscores the importance of really meaning it, of saying the words of one's heart rather than simply going through the motions in a formulaic way. Most of the time -- as the name of our local Jewish community implies! -- we (contemporary, liberal Jews) tend to incline towards the kavana side of the spectrum. We advocate for a Judaism that is personally meaningful, creative, and comes from the heart; we set up choices for how to engage and encourage individuals to forge their own Jewish paths.

However, sometimes, we also crave the stability of keva... of knowing exactly what to do or say, of having the certainty that we can "get it just right," or feeling like we're in good company in performing a ritual together in community. This is never more true than in moments of crisis or challenge, when Judaism's prescribed ritual path particularly feels like a source of comfort (for example, I think of the prescribed rituals of mourning following the death of a close relative). In this particular High Holiday season, as we enter 5781 -- with the compounding crises of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and the questioning of so many fundamentals in our American society as backdrop -- many of us crave a degree of fixedness and security. The more unpredictable the world feels, the more we long for predictability and certainty. Given the relative isolation we are experiencing and the fact that we cannot gather in person for this holiday season, I believe that there will be extra power this High Holiday season in sharing an experience, even from our own places, by reciting many of the same words of our shared liturgy at the same time.

We are launching High Holiday registration this week! As in past years, we will continue to offer multiple pathways for participating in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (yes, even on Zoom!)... and of course, we do want everyone to find opportunities to connect and engage in ways that are personally meaningful, with true kavana (intention). In addition, this year more than ever, we are also cognizant of what it means to create a shared experience, with words and melodies that are familiar and anchoring, with a sense of keva (fixedness), and with set liturgy that connects us to Jews around the world and to our shared history. Where prompting is necessary (as it was for the bringer of first fruits in Deuteronomy), we will rely on printed words in the prayerbook, on call-and-response, on explanation, and other tools to help ensure that we are all on the same page. Even with all the flexibility and personalization we bring to the experience, it's reassuring to remember that in returning to our set liturgy, we will be aligning with one another and with Jews around the world, and placing ourselves in the context of our history.

May these tools help us to do the shared work of the season, together -- and I truly hope to see you over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum