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4 Weeks, 4  Prayers : Week 4






“4 Weeks, 4 Prayers”

Week/Prayer #4: Aleinu

Rabbi Adam J. Raskin, Congregation Har Shalom

 Stop me if you’ve heard this one…Oh, wait, you can’t stop me.  So just sit back and enjoy.  The story goes that Shmerel wants to borrow a horse from his neighbor Berel. 

"Sure you can borrow my horse," replies Berel. "But one thing you have to know about this horse. He is trained to start when you say 'Baruch Hashem' (thank God), and he stops when you say 'Shema Yisrael.'"

So Shmerel gets on the horse and practices. "Baruch Hashem" he says, and the horse breaks into a trot. "Shema Yisrael" he announces, and sure enough, the horse stops. After practicing a few times, he feels confident and begins his journey.

As he is riding along a road, he sees that the road ends up ahead with a steep cliff. Suddenly Shmerel realizes that he has forgotten the word needed to make the horse stop.

"Ashrei yoshvei vetecha" he squeaks, desperately. The horse keeps going.

"Um – Adon Olam" he intones.

The horse keeps going.

"Eh – Aleinu L'shabeiach."

But the horse keeps galloping.

Now fearful that he is about to die, Shmerel does what any good Jew would do when confronted with certain death. He screams our, "Shema Yisrael." As trained, the horse stops suddenly -- barely two feet from the edge of the cliff.

Shaking like a leaf, Shmerel pulls out his handkerchief and wipes the sweat from his forehead. "Whew" he exclaims, "Baruch Hashem!"

It’s cute joke, unless of course you are Shmerel!  I shared it with you because I want to talk with you today about one of those prayers that Shmerel manages to conjure from his memory bank.  One of the most familiar prayers in our repertoire.  One of the prayers that many of us could say, or sing by heart.  It appears at the end of every single service of the year except for Yom Kippur…Of course I am talking about Aleinu. We have toe tapping melodies; some people stand on their tippy toes while others bend their knees…we’ve been singing it since Hebrew school, since summer camp, since our bar/bat mitzvahs.  For some people it means that services are over and they already start taking off their tallis or tefillin before it’s over.  Aside from maybe Shema and Adon Olam, as testified by our friend Shmerel, there is probably no other prayer that is more familiar to us.

That would make sense as well if only because Aleinu is one of the very oldest prayers in the siddur. A 14th Century source attributes the authorship of Aleinu to none other than Yehoshua ben Nun, Moses’s successor Joshua who brought the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the land of Israel.  Tradition says Joshua recited it as he actually crossed over the threshold into Eretz Yisrael! Most scholars reject the historical validity of that, but understand that the claim was made to give extra authority and gravity to the prayer that seems to have migrated from its original placement to a where we find it now, at the conclusion of morning, afternoon, and evening services throughout the year.

You see, Rashi didn’t have Aleinu in his siddur in France; neither did Rambam in his siddur in Spain or Egypt.  Aleinu is not mentioned in the Talmud and actually is not mentioned in any source at all before the 12th Century.  Its origins are not even in the siddur at all.  Aleinu was composed instead for the High Holiday mahzor. 

Before we go on, let’s talk about what’s in this prayer that we are so accustomed to saying.  The first part of Aleinu speaks of the uniqueness of the Jewish people.  Shelo asanu ke’goyei ha’aratzot—we are not like every other earthly family; what we possess is a unique spiritual inheritance.  Therefore, our duty is first and foremost lateit gedulah le’yotzeir bereishit, to praise the Author of creation, and to bow and prostrate before the one God of the universe.  In fact, this is the only place where we really bow for an extended period of time.  In the Amidah, we bend the knee; in Aleinu we bow and hold the position.  On the high holidays, where this prayer originates, we actually get down on the groud and fully prostrate ourselves.  And by we, unfortunately, I mean the clergy.  In most shuls nowadays if anyone gets down on the floor in their High Holiday finery, it is typically the cantor or the rabbi.  But before we were concerned about a little dust on our knees, everyone got down on the ground during aleinu.  If you’ve every had occasion to witness this (it’s common still in Israel and in some very traditional shuls), it is actually a very powerful sight.  In the second half of Aleinu, the theme shifts from the uniqueness of the Jewish people and the oneness of God to the vision that the entire world will come to understand God and work to le’takkein olam be’malchut Shaddai…this is the original tikkun olam, that we will collaborate to bring wholeness, and sweep away false gods and empty idols in favor of establishing the ethical monotheism of God’s sovereignty.

This prayer has a lot of lore associated with it.  One story relates that in 1171 in the French city of Blois, there a violent pogrom was unleashed against the Jewish community.  An eye-witness to the persecution wrote to Rabbi Ya’akov of Orleans, a leader of French Jewry that the Jewish martyrs chanted Aleinu as they were escorted to their deaths.  When you think about it, chanting a song that God is one and that we only recognize the sovereignty of the God of Israel is a powerful anthem when one faces death for being a faithful Jew.

Another story suggests that a line that is often missing in modern renditions of aleinu was a medieval Jewish polemic against Christians.  The original Aleinu contained the following claim:  she’hem mistachavim le’hevel ve’rik, they, as in gentiles, bow down to vanity and emptiness.  A 14th Century German Jewish apostate named Pesach Peter alleged that the word va’rik, meaning “[and] emptiness” had the same numerological value as the word Yeshu or Jesus.  Peter claimed that Jews perpetuated a veiled insult against Jesus in all of their prayers, leading to King Friedrich I of Prussia to order Jews to eliminate that phrase from Aleinu.  You can still find it in some Orthodox prayer books, but even many modern Orthodox and Conservative siddurim have removed that phrase.

On the High Holidays, and Rosh Hashanah in particular, when the leitmotif is malchut, God’s Kingship, God’s sovereignty over the world, Aleinu, along with the fully body prostration, really amplifies that idea. But the move from Mahzor to Siddur, from Rosh Hashanah to daily prayers domesticated Aleinu.  Rabbi Ezra Bick, an Israeli author and teacher argues that Aleinu is not a concluding prayer of the service but a “departure prayer.”  What he means by that is that Aleinu is really the bridge between the sacredness and peace of the sanctuary, the synagogue, and the complexity and crush of the outside world.  It’s easy to talk about God as King, God as the ruler, about the special relationship between God and the Jewish people when we are inside the walls of the synagogue. The challenge is to live outside the synagogue with that same conviction.  As Rav Bick says “We leave the sacred precincts because we are carrying a consignment, a mission, not to join the world and descend to its level, but to raise it to our and to work for its transformation.  Aleinu is not only a prophylactic to the dangers of the world, but a charge and mission to make the world the Kingdom of God.”  I mentioned that some believe that Joshua authored this prayer upon entering the land of Israel.  While I don’t subscribe to that theory, I love the metaphor of Joshua leaving the desert, where the Jewish people were surrounded by God’s protective presence…where manna fell from the sky everyday, where they were protected by the divine clouds, the ananei ha’kavod, where they were guided and taught by Moses, the greatest prophet of all, to the land on the other side of the Jordan.  A land that was still rife with idolatry; a land where the Jewish people would have to plant and work and cultivate their own sustenance rather than wait for it to fall from the sky.  A land where they no longer had Moses’s daily guidance or wisdom, but where they would have to wrestle with how to live a life of holiness and figure out the Torah’s message in each generation.  Aleinu is that departure prayer…whether we are departing from the comforts of divine protection in the desert or the comforts of being inside the Jewishly saturated environment of the synagogue.  As we make our way into the world, we are “commanded to export the majesty of God” from the sanctuary to the street.  Whether we are stepping outside on a regular day or a Shabbat throughout the year, or we are stepping out into a new year, may the words of Aleinu remind us that the beauty of holiness and the relationship we have with God is not meant to be kept only to ourselves, but spread throughout the world, so that one day, hopefully soon, ve’haya Adonai le’melech al ko ha’aretz; bayom ha’hu yihiye Adonai echad, u’shemo echad…God will be proclaimed king of the universe, and on that day God will be one and God’s name shall be one.

Rabbi Adam J. Raskin


Tue, September 29 2020 11 Tishrei 5781