Long before I was a rabbi, during the Musaf services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I wondered how it came to pass that the Aleinu prayer became such a liturgical centerpiece of what are arguably the most important prayer services of the entire Jewish calendar year.
Think about it. Recited three times each day of the year, at the conclusion of the morning, afternoon and evening services, the Aleinu is the very definition of a prayer that gets extraordinarily short shrift from the vast majority of worshippers. In the morning, people are taking off their tefillin and already have one foot out of the service, both literally and figuratively. This is even truer of the afternoon and evening services, where except for the Mourner’s Kaddish, nothing follows the Aleinu. When it is done, the service itself is done.
But come the High Holidays, the essential message of Aleinu – the sovereignty of God, and the obligation to repair the world so that it again reflects the Divine image, commonly referred to as Tikkun Olam – that message is a central theme of the Days of Awe. God is the sovereign before whom we stand in judgment. In fact, on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we literally bow down on bended knees and prostrate ourselves before the Sovereign of Sovereigns. The more common “bend the knee and bow the head” of the daily service recitation of Aleinu will not suffice. The “throw-away” Aleinu is replaced by the more majestic and symbolism-laden version, complete with haunting melody and great drama.
You might well ask why exactly it is that here, on Marine Camp Foster in Okinawa, so far from my synagogue and prayer community, I am thinking about Aleinu. The answer, oddly enough, is to be found in the Star Spangled Banner, and the role that it plays in the daily life of the Marines who are stationed here.
Since our granddaughter Calanit was born here on August 1, my wife and I have been taking “shifts” with our daughter and son-in-law, providing extra hands for our nursing daughter, and allowing her to return to sleep once the baby has finished nursing. My wife has been on the two a.m. to five a.m. shift, and I have been getting up at five and staying awake.
During my shift, while my daughter feeds the baby, I’ve taken the liberty (which my son-in-law has surrendered gladly) of walking their airedale terrier Penny, usually at around eight a.m. What I discovered is that, precisely at eight, reveille sounds over the camp loudspeaker system, followed immediately by the Star Spangled Banner and the Japanese national anthem. The rules are that, if you are in uniform, you stop in your place and salute. Even if not in uniform, you are to stop in place and stand respectfully at attention. If in a vehicle, you have to stop the vehicle and turn on your hazard lights. It is more than a little reminiscent – eerily so – of Yom Hashoah in Israel, when the sirens sound.
When I happened upon this practice for the first time, I couldn’t help but reflect on how, the Star Spangled Banner most often suffers from the same lack of respect that Aleinu does. At ballgames, people regularly talk through it, and cheering for the home team usually begins long before the anthem is completed. There are, of course, notable exceptions, like the late Whitney Houston’s remarkable (if dubbed) rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl following 9/11. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. It usually takes an extraordinary circumstance to create any kind of focus around the anthem.
But not here. Not on a military base. If you’re lacking focus, the base rules of conduct will remind you that your national anthem is playing. Snap to attention, and salute your flag.
The underlying message is not complex, but it is, of course, of great importance. You shouldn’t need an extraordinary circumstance, or a sense of threat, to understand and appreciate the significance of your national anthem, why it is that you serve, and what the values are that you are willing to risk your life defending.
And, of course, the spiritual corollary is also true. We shouldn’t need the High Holidays to remind us that the fundamental message of Aleinu is a pillar of our faith, and our understanding of God’s place and ours in the world. Human nature being what it is, losing track of that basic truth is hardly surprising. We live lives that don’t often lend themselves to deep insight on a daily basis. But the message remains powerful, and true.
Whether in Okinawa or Forest Hills, maintaining a focus on that which is of enduring significance is vitally important, whether in service of God or country. Context matters. But where the context is not conducive to focus, we need to work that much harder. Both God and country deserve far better than our default efforts.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.