Text and context on the High Holy Days

Text and context on the High Holy Days

Rabbanit Shani Taragin teaches across Teaneck for the OU’s Women’s Initiative of Inspiration

Rabbanit Shani Taragin (Courtesy OU)
Rabbanit Shani Taragin (Courtesy OU)

The texts that we usually read on the High Holy Days are so familiar to many of us that the words often don’t quite register. They instead move by in a steady, comforting rhythm; even the images are so ingrained in us that we barely register them without conscious effort.

But, Rabbanit Shani Taragin says, there are all sorts of truths and metaphors and insights that dance through and around and underneath those stories; the point of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to open ourselves enough to truly hear them.

Rabbanit Taragin is in Bergen County and the surrounding New York metropolitan area this weekend for the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Weekend of Inspiration. She is to teach at local day schools toward the end of the week and to spend Shabbat at three Teaneck shuls, Congregations Beth Aaron, Rinat Yisrael, and Bnai Yeshurun. On Sunday, she will teach at the Orthodox Union’s Torah New York; more than 2,500 people are expected to go to the Met’s Citi Field in Queens to listen to some of the Orthodox world’s best teachers and speakers. (See box.)

Rabbanit Taragin’s talks to the high school students encourage them to look at the secondary characters in the stories they will hear in the Torah and haftarah readings. “The readings are very famous stories, about Sarah Imenu” — our mother Sarah — “and the story of Chana,” the childless woman who weeps and prays silently, moving her lips, as if she were drunk, and is rewarded with Samuel. In that haftarah, we also are reminded of Rachel, who cries for her children. “What roles do the secondary characters play, not only in enhancing the primary character’s roles but also in propelling the plot?” Rabbanit Taragin asked.

“Especially when it comes to high school students, they are so used to the stories that we hear every single year,” she said. “When you are able to show them that the story has so many other perspectives, that if you pay attention only to the primary ones you are missing part of the message, that gives them a new message, and it enhances the significance of the story.” It opens their ears.

She plans to teach about the 13 attributes of God’s mercy “that were first revealed to Moshe after the incident of the Golden Calf,” she continued. “I will show them the significance of the context of that prayer,” and how its understanding evolved. “These students are going to be reciting them in Selichot prayers through Yom Kippur. They tend to say them by rote, without really thinking about the meaning, even though they know about the power of Moshe’s initial prayer.

“Then you see how significant the prayer will be, if they can focus on the power that these words have. I want them to appreciate the art of the prayer.

“That’s my approach in general, with both the Torah readings and with tefillot,” prayers, she said. “You have to see something in context — you have to see the historical and textual context — and once you do that, you can appreciate the relevance for you now.”

On Shabbat, Rabbanit Taragin plans to talk about Rabbi Akiva “and his approach to understanding the kingship of God and its implications in the tefillot of Rosh Hashanah. We always hear stories about Rabbi Akiva, but it is his approach to kingship that is the greatest indicator of his philosophical outlook. For example, he places the essence of the day, the sanctity of the day, on the kingship of God. When are you going to blow the shofar? It is always linked to the coronation of God.”

On Saturday night, she continued, she will talk about “the tefillah of Chana, who helps set the theme for Rosh Hashanah. “Through her story, we are going to see the meaning of both her initial prayer and her post-partum prayer. We will see what is so significant about each one; it demonstrates a certain iconoclastic outlook that we are meant to focus on in our prayers for Rosh Hashanah.”

At Citi Field, she will move logically toward a discussion of “fathers, mothers, and children. The tearful readings of Rosh Hashanah.

“Every one of the readings except the sacrifice of Isaac involves scenes of crying,” she said. “And it’s not even the usual suspects. In the story of Sarah, we don’t hear about Sarah’s cries, but of Hagar’s. In the story of the Akedah” — Abraham’s barely averted sacrifice of his son Isaac — “there aren’t tears, but in the midrash there are, from either Sarah or Isaac. And then Rachel’s tears.

“What is the significance of these tears? What does it tell us about the relationship between parents and children? Between us and God?”

The connection between all of Rabbanit Taragin’s talks is that “they all are meant to focus on examining the prayers and Torah readings that were selected for us. They are not just some type of public proclamation. They are instituted to show us what we should be learning, what we should be teaching, what we should be focused on at Rosh Hashanah.

“It is about a very close reading of the text, to see both the basic ideas and the underlying meanings, to be sensitive to the structure and word use.” It’s important to examine the midrashim connected to the Torah and haftarah texts as well as those primary texts, because “the midrashim are an expansion of the text,” she said. “Often people see them as dissociated, but when you are sensitive to the text, you can understand the deeper messages that the midrashim are trying to relate.

“What I try to do is first examine the text and then show the creative messages that I learn, and then I put it together and elicit a much more meaningful, focused response from the learner.

“It’s a more holistic approach to the text,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Rabbanit Taragin once was an English major. Although she made aliyah years ago, she’s from Long Island’s Five Towns and began her college career in “Judaic studies, English studies, and biology” at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, she said. “And then I went to study in Israel for what I thought would be just a year — but it wasn’t.” She married Rabbi Reuven Taragin, and finished her undergraduate and then graduate work at Bar Ilan University. She has a long and impressive list of academic and educational achievements — according to her YU biography, she teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Midreshet Torah V’Avodah, MaTaN, Migdal Oz, Sha’alvim for Women, Lander College, and the Women’s’ Beit Midrash in Efrat and Ramat Shilo. She focuses on teaching women, and on training women in teaching other women.

She’s thrilled that the Orthodox Union is “sponsoring such a wonderful initiative at this time of the year. The Women’s Initiative Weekend of Inspiration will “help everyone to be a little more inspired in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and to bring teachers from Israel to share a lot of these experiences, whether it is text-based or a love of the land of Israel or a love of the language. That’s phenomenal on their part.

“And the fact that it is a women’s initiative! It helps ensure that female scholars and women who are passionate about Torah have the opportunity to teach and to learn.”

Rabbanit Taragin’s evident passion for Torah, teaching, and learning puts her firmly in that group of women.

Who: Rabbanit Shani Taragin

What: Will teach in schools and shuls in Teaneck this weekend. The talks are open to both women and men. Her public speaking schedule includes

When and where:

3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, about “Fathers, Mothers, and Children: The Tearful Readings of Rosh Hashanah”

5 p.m. at Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., about “Rabbi Akiva Celebrates Rosh Hashanah”

Pre-Selichot at 9:30 p.m., at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, 641 W Englewood Ave., about “Tefilat Chana: From Personal Prayer to National Anthem.” The pre-Selichot shiur will be available online

Why: For the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Initiative Weekend of Inspiration.

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