Reclaiming Aleinu

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Whether to precarious geopolitical situations or challenges posed by personal adversity, the authentic Jewish response is to seek spiritual merits.

Such virtues might come in the form of more heartfelt prayers, more determined Torah-study, more frequent acts of kindness, greater empathy for one another. Or in the form of smaller, more specific, undertakings, like special care in the performance of particular mitzvot.

Because Jewish tradition teaches that the path to a goal entails utilizing all available means, the seemingly less significant no less than the more obvious.

In that spirit, I would like to offer a small idea for Jews seeking a spiritual merit: reclaiming “Aleinu.”

Until one of my daughters shared her personal exasperation over the fact, I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who had found it nearly impossible to complete the “Aleinu” (“It is incumbent…”) prayer in shul in the time allotted. Granted, one can always complete Aleinu after the Kaddish that generally follows it, but what most often happens instead is that, at least for most people, the prayer is mercilessly mangled or truncated.

Aleinu is no minor prayer. It was composed, according to early sources, by Joshua; its opening sentences, moreover, were the death-declaration of countless Jews throughout history, the words with which they defiantly refused to succumb to the tortures and threats of those bent on uprooting devotion to our ancestral faith. It is part of our Amidah for Mussaf on Rosh Hashana.

And the appended “Al Kein” (“Therefore…”) paragraph is, according to our tradition, the expression of repentance composed by Achan (the first letter of each of its first three words spell his name), in the wake of his sin of misappropriating valuables from the spoils of the conquered city of Jericho, for which he expressed sincere regret.

Might it not be part of a truly Jewish response to adversity for us to better connect to such words?

And the words themselves are so powerfully pertinent to our times, when many feel “the footsteps of the Messiah” can be heard in the distance.

Once again, and perhaps more than ever, the small fraction of one percent of the world’s population known as the Jewish People is, astoundingly, the focus of myriad forces of unbridled evil.

No Jew with any sense of history could possibly ignore the confluence of contemporary world events: The venomous hatred fueling Islamist movements, the acts of anti-Semitism that poke through the loam of humanity around the globe like toxic mushrooms, the decrepitude masquerading as the Palestinian Authority’s “unity government,” the smiling little would-be mass murderer in Iran. The footsteps grow louder. Is it not a time for Jewish merits, large and small?

The haters like to say that there is a Jewish Plot. They are essentially right. But it’s more of a plan than a plot, since there’s only one – or, better, One – Planner. And His plan is unfolding before our eyes.

We Jews have a role here: to be better Jews in every way we can, and to realize that, in the end, there is, as the Talmud tells us, “no one on whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven.”

And when we do our part, our tradition teaches, we will merit the ultimate redemption, the era of global recognition of G-d and His truth that our Prophets have foretold. It is, at it happens, described in the words of “Al Kein”:

“And therefore we put our hope in You, G-d, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor…to perfect the universe through the Almighty’s sovereignty.

“Then all humanity will call upon Your Name, to turn all the earth’s wicked toward You. All the world’s inhabitants will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… and to the glory of Your Name they will render homage, and they will all accept upon themselves the yoke of Your kingship… on that day G-d will be One and His name will be One.”

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8 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    IIRC, at NCSY Shabbatonim, one aspect of every tefilah btzibbur was the recitation out loud of both paragraphs of Aleinu after the point where the well known nusach stops. We also say Aleinu in Musaf for RH to emphasize its importance as it relates to one of the major themes of the day-Malchus HaShem-as opposed to saying it in a hurried manner during the rest of the year.

  2. Arozora says:

    THANK YOU!! Happily, four of the five shuls in which I’ve davenned since moving to the city where I now live actually sing all of aleinu and v’al kayn all the way through. It’s not that hard to learn (not nearly as difficult as anim z’merot, which everybody toils through every week and which defeats even the most determined little kid leading it).

    As to tunes; I’ve been using the tune to the Notre Dame fight song for y’ru et hashem since I lived in South Bend, Indiana, in the mid-80’s – it’s nice and up-tempo…

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “This may be an aside, but can’t somebody compose good replacements for the Aleinu tunes typically sung?”

    Taam V’Reach Ayn L’Hisvakeach :)

    But I also think that we first need to ascertain the source of the current Alienu tune; it may have been introduced in America, or it might have a prior source, in which case one can certainly argue for its continued place today. I know one yeshivah which does not use the American Young Israel nussach(not that there is anything wrong with it), yet sings Alienu on Yomim Noraim in that manner until “v’anachnu korim”, so it might even be of European origin.

    The reason I note this, is because I once asked a rosh yeshivah who is a baal tefilah for Neilah, about what to me, was a curiously upbeat tune used by his yeshivah/congregation, and he told me that the yeshivah’s original chazzan heard it from R. Meir Shapiro. I can think of similar examples as well with tunes composed by other European roshei yeshivah(at least in my taste/opinion). So a tune may have an ancient source, even if it would not be one which we would compose to those words.

    Also whether European or American, there might be reason for keeping what people are familiar with. In that vein, the above person also mentioned that while a chazzan can innovate to an extent and introduce certain new melodies during Yomim Noraim, he needs to keep the particular tzibbur’s basic nussach that they are used to.

  4. another Mordechai says:

    Of course your point is extremely important.

    A number of times, I have visited “Fleetwood Synagogue” (in Mount Vernon, NY, when Rabbi Joseph Chait served as its Rav) where (on Shabbos mornings) all of the children would gather on the Bimoh to sing “Aleinu” together – and not just the first part – but the entire content of both paragraphs – and nobody else had to “rush” through it.

    I have often reflected on the fact that these children were being “trained” to recite every word of this prayer, and that if other Shuls would copy this custom – this might be a small step in the right direction.

  5. Gershon says:

    On behalf of all of those struggling to finish even half of alenu before kaddish, thank you. How can anyone possibly understand the words and still say them so fast?

  6. Bob Miller says:

    This may be an aside, but can’t somebody compose good replacements for the Aleinu tunes typically sung? The beginning is reasonably solemn but “churchy”, the middle (Shehu noteh…) is sing-songy and repetitious, and the last part (Al kein…), is monumentally repetitious and dull.

    Jews have been among the greatest musical minds. Let’s get to work!

  7. YM says:

    Great post.

  8. de la costa says:

    i agree with the general tenor. when non-O jews talk about tikkun olam, it will never mean ‘bemalchut sha-dai , but rather some left wing social agenda