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The Responsibility of Choosing

by Marthajoy Aft

On the second day of Rosh Hashana, our minyan gives me the privilege of leading the "alternative" musaf service. It is understood that I will include at least one Chassidic story in the service.

The actual service is not really difficult for me to lead, since The Brookline Chavurah Minyan uses a standard machzor and the usual prayers are apparent. Having appropriate kavannah is perhaps more problematic, since 1.) I'm tired by this point-in the service, and so are the members of my community; 2.) We've already blown shofar once, so it's not as exciting to hear it again; and 3.) 1 personally am not so fond of the musaf service anyway, with its emphasis on sacrifices in the Temple.

The reality is that once we begin the service, it is likely that my fatigue will be swept up in the adrenelin rush which accompanies this leadership role; we love hearing the shofar again, and though the baalay shofar may be a bit tired, they do enjoy their role; and the very familiar nusach of the service brings memories of my teenage days in the C.K.I. choir in Chicago - I am carried past the literal meanings of the words and into the holiday itself.

But the most difficult task of all is choosing which Chassidic story to tell this year. I have several favorites; with a bit of review, I could happily tell any of them. Of course, I've told each of these favorites at least once in the past. Perhaps I should learn a new story? And where will I look for a new story? (One source that never fails has been "Ascent" spiritual publication, P.O. Box 296, 2 Ari Street, Tsfat 13102, Israel, e-mail ascent@actcom.co.il) Do I have adequate time to prepare any new story for telling? Maybe I could compose one myself?

Whichever story is chosen (note how I procrastinate on this choice), there are certain givens: It will be a Chassidic story, or a modern one "in the style," neo-Chassidic.

I will credit the author or source.

I will follow Bruno Bettelheim's advice (I know he's out of fashion now), and will definitely not tell the moral of the story. My preference is for each listener to find her/his own lessons in the story told this year.

But I will not defer the process of choosing any longer. The choice of the story is not only mine to make. Knowing my community well allows me to consider their needs, not just my own inclinations. Some considerations:

1.) Does my story include lots of Hebrew or Yiddish words, or arcane customs? If so, how will I provide adequate background so everyone will feel comfortable?

2.) Does this story appeal to children as well as to adults? Certainly, I can anticipate at least some kids being present at this service. They do not have to understand everything in the story necessarily, but there should be a "hook" to draw them in, too.

3.) Does the story speak, in at least some oblique fashion, to the developmental tasks of those present? Some developmental tasks and appropriate matching stories are obvious, such as those stories about the child who blows a flute or whistle or who recites the alef-bet during services seem to be a good match for those at our service who as yet do not read Hebrew; the story about the master who goes into the woods to chop wood for a sick woman - and causes his minyan to wait and wait to begin services seems appropriate for those with responsibilities for aging parents or infants; etc. Other stories address our existential tasks during the holiday season, and are less direct in their application.

Once in a while, on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, or Simchat Torah, someone tells me that they "can't get that story out of my head," or "keep thinking about that story." Then I know the choice was a good one.

And given all these considerations, often I do not make a final decision until I'm at the service itself. I may come prepared with two or three stories, unsure as to which to use. I ask for Divine guidance, and together we make this year's story choice. Then I must get out of the way and allow the story to be told.

I wish you a sweet and happy New Year!

Glossary of terms

    alef-bet: the Hebrew alphabet.
    baalay: from 'baal", master, master of-
    chavurah: from "chaver," friend; group of friends.
    kavannah: intention.
    machzor: High Holy Day prayerbook
    minyan: ten people (traditionally, men) required as a quorum for a complete service.
    musaf: the additional service, with some repetitions of earlier sections of the service
    nusach: melodies accompanying prayers
    shofar: the "announcing tool" (see Rabbi Marc Gellman's DOES GD HAVE A BIG TOE?)
Copyright 1997 by Marthajoy Aft. Used by permission.
Marthajoy Aft, editor of Neshama, is a storyteller and teacher of Jewish mysticism and healing.

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