An Orphan in Shul


siddurBy Rabbi Avi ShafranThere’s an orphan in shul.

Everybody knows him, or thinks they do. And yet very few people pay him much heed.

He has quite a yichus, too, descended as he is from illustrious personages. A compelling personal history too.

His name is Aleinu.

Yes, that Aleinu, the one that our mesorah informs us was written by Yehoshua, with an appended paragraph, “Al kein nekaveh…” composed as a teshuvah-song by Achan (the letters of whose name are the initials of the paragraph’s first three words, in Nussach Ashkenaz), the man who misappropriated valuables from the spoils of the conquered city of Yericho during the conquest of Eretz Yisrael in the time of Yehoshua.

Aleinu’s words were the last ones of countless Jews throughout history, the words with which they defiantly refused to succumb to the demands and tortures of those bent on uprooting devotion to Hashem and His Torah. It follows every tefilla we daven and is even part of our Mussaf Amidah on Rosh Hashana. And yet, all too often, it is treated not only as an after-prayer but as an afterthought.

Until one of my daughters shared her own personal experience and exasperation over the fact, I had thought that I was perhaps the only person who found it impossible to complete Aleinu in the time allotted in many different shuls I have attended over the years in many different places. Yes, there are certainly, boruch Hashem, shuls where it is recited well and properly. And yes, one can always just complete it oneself after the Kaddish that generally follows it. But what most often happens instead is that, at least for most people, Aleinu is mercilessly garbled, “edited” for time or simply, unceremoniously truncated.

Unlike some experiments, you can try this one at home – in fact, I urge you to: Get a watch or clock with a second hand, open a siddur and, looking inside, read all the words of Aleinu as quickly as you possibly can but saying every word. Can you do it in less than 45 seconds? I doubt it. Then, the next time you’re in shul, glance at your watch and see how long it takes the assembled to say Aleinu.

See how long it takes you.

I rest my case.

Well over a year ago, every observant Jew with a clear sky overhead stood outside, glanced up at the sun and made a bracha in commemoration of Kiddush Hachama, an event that takes place once every twenty-eight years. We all pronounced the bracha with that thought in mind, and with the deep concentration it inspired. The bracha, though, was the same one we make when there is a thunderstorm and we see lightning.

And what more sincerely fervent words are ever heard than “Hashem hu ho’Elokim!” – repeated seven times at the very conclusion of Yom Kippur – the words of our ancestors at Har HaCarmel in the days of Eliyahu Hanavi? Yet when that very phrase is said in the paragraphs after Krias Shma in Maariv, they are usually mumbled (if that).

It’s human nature. We become unmindful of things to which we are accustomed. Even important things.

Aleinu is one of them, and it’s one worth refocusing on, especially in our day, when evil salivates at the thought of what it would like to do to Klal Yisrael, when new incarnations of old monsters have risen, it seems, from the ground. Ours are times when it is, or should be, more clear than ever that the conventional roads to hope – diplomatic, military, political – are all dead ends, times for realizing that, in the Mishneh’s words, “there is no one on whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven.”

Times for declaring, minds fully engaged with lips, that

“…we put our hope in You, Hashem, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, 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 Hashem will be One and His name will be One.”

The words, of course, of the orphan in shul.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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  1. I mentioned this article to my husband who brought up the fact that Barich Shemey (what we say when we open the ark) is said at a time of great potential for Divine favor, and we rush through that all the time, and most don’t understand it.

    What if we just said these things in English — and slowly for a change? I think if people slowly said the second paragraph of Aleinu we’d have the Geulah.