At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.
This soul work begins with the ancient Greek dictum, “know thyself”? Or, to put it more rabbinically, “know before whom you stand?” I ask myself: What am I afraid of? Deep down, what are my real hopes?
An investment of time and focus in anticipation of the holidays elevates the experience. Without the prep-work, is there any doubt that 5 hour services could be a drag? It’s like showing up to the Olympic marathon having not stretched, not worked out, and perhaps not having run in an entire year (or more). The results won’t be good.
I base my approach on practices of the Penn Resiliency Project, of Positive Psychology – this soul’s accounting tackles our fears and hopes for the coming year head-on and in a practical way. Here are the steps:
For each of the categories of your life (friends, relationships with each family member, work, personal health, etc.) do the following:
1) List 3 things that you are most afraid will happen in the coming year. (I encourage you to be honest with your fears – just get the realistic and unfounded flow out of you).
2) List 3 things that you deeply hope will happen in the coming year.
3) List 3 things that are most likely to happen this year.
You’ve just put pen to paper about your worries and your hopes as well as what is most realistically going to happen – Reality is most often found in that middle ground between worst and best.
Now, list steps to take:
A) For each of your fears listed, give yourself 3 simple steps to take to prevent the worst from happening.
B) For each of the things you hope will happen this year, give yourself 3 simple steps that would help make that happen.
Having the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears, and creating realistic steps about how to prevent or coax them along, has a tremendous empowering effect on our spiritual preparation for the New Year. It leads to greater joy and to greater optimism.
That sentence strikes fear in to the heart of many pulpit rabbis. There is so much preparation that goes in to creating a Rosh Hashannah service. The pressure on the clergy is immense. Thousands of Jews come to synagogue on the High Holidays who only show up that one time a year. The rabbi must lead a meaningful, interesting, and moving service while at the same time inspiring each person in the congregation with his or her sermon. The bar is set very high.
I sit in a very interesting space for the High Holidays. I am a rabbi who does not lead services. I sit in the pews with other congregants, and this gives me a unique perspective. I experience both the tension of my fellow clergy in preparing for the services and the expectations of my fellow congregants when I come to synagogue. I listen intently to both what the rabbi has to say from the pulpit and what the Jews in the pews say in response.
One thing has become abundantly clear to me. The rabbi and other service leaders do have an impact on a congregant’s prayer experience. They set a tone and space for spiritual contemplation. However the people who have the most meaningful experiences at services do so because they take responsibility for their own experience.
What does this mean? It means that they take time BEFORE service to think about what they want to do DURING the service. This plays out differently for different people. Some people spend time before Rosh Hashannah reflecting on the year that is ending, and come to services ready to dedicate themselves to new goals. They then use the time during the service to clarify their goals for the year to come. Others decide to spend the service time itself reflecting on the year that has past. Others bring reading material with them to the service, not just to keep them from getting bored, but to help them move down whatever path they are traveling. I have seen people read Jewish texts, spiritual guidebooks, and self help books. Some people use the familiar melodies and prayers to contemplate God, and pray. And some people use the service time to catch up with old friends since this is one of the few times of year they see each other.
All of these are meaningful options. What matters is that these people have put some thought in to how they want to spend the few hours they are in synagogue. The time we have to sit in synagogue is really a gift. Instead of being bored, and let’s be honest, the most common complaint I hear is that services are boring, do some preparation so that you are not going to be bored. The prayers, the music and the rabbi’s words are there to help us get to in to a different spiritual space. But as with anything else in life, if we don’t take responsibility for our own actions, we are not going to achieve anything.
So, if you want to have a more meaningful High Holiday experience this year, you now have a month to prepare. Think about what would be a meaningful use of your time this year. What do you need to reflect on in your life? What might you want to change or improve upon? What do you want to read about? Can others in your life help? What would you like to say to God?
It is one month until the New Year. What do you need to do to prepare?
When news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?
I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair. As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting. The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.
So it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year. We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.
It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo. It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.
Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.
A documentary film called “Happy” came out last year, following a considerable amount of research and writing on the newly popular field of Happiness studies. It explores what it is that makes people happy. In a little over an hour, it tells an inspiring story of the path to happiness.
I watched it a recently in preparation for the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days. The film shows people who not only appear to be very content, but joyously proclaim how happy they are. This is contrasted against pictures of many of Japanese workers who are literally working themselves to death. Those who are happy are typically of modest means, and some are poor – that is – economically. But they are rich in a very important way – they are happy with who they are.
The keys to happiness documented by the film include:
- Being content and grateful for what we have,
- Having plentiful time with friends and family – indeed, lives that center around close and nourishing relationships,
- Close connections within community – and a shared communal life,
- Regular experiences of helping others.
All this contributes significantly to happiness.
In our often overworked, overstressed, sometimes fragmented lives, these lessons are important. The question is – how to get there?
The day after I watched the documentary, I went to the post office to mail a homemade Rosh Hashanah cake to my son who is in California. I was a little stressed because I didn’t have time to get packing supplies in advance. I asked the clerk behind the counter for help, and he grabbed everything I needed and offered to pack and seal the box for me. As he did, he started to tell me about how happy it made him to be helping people, and he was really glad to do this for me. And he went on to tell me how he holds three jobs and struggles to make ends meet, but he really does have enough, and he is grateful for it. All he really needs, he went on to say, are his wonderful family, especially the joy he gets from his kids. I just stood there nodding, nearly gaping at him for his perfect recitation of the themes of the “Happy” film. I asked him if he’d seen the film “Happy” and he said he hadn’t, but was so grateful for the suggestion. “Tonight,” he said, “is family TV night. I can’t wait to watch it with my kids.”
During the season of Jewish holy days, I am thinking about happiness as a Jewish value, experienced as wholeness and contentment. How does Judaism help us to achieve this sometimes-elusive goal? One significant way is through the weekly celebration of Shabbat. Another is through the rhythm of time marked by the festivals of the Jewish calendar, offering us an opportunity at the start of each season to feel and express gratitude, and to be fulfilled through community celebration. All of these days offer us a separation from the stresses and pulls of ordinary days, and a chance to truly “be” in our own quiet space and in the pleasure of company with family, friends and community. How much more joy can be experienced when we stop to experience this wholeness that comes from the cessation from striving!
This week we are celebrating the festival of Sukkot. It is a time to share meals in the Sukkah, the fragile hut reminiscent of the wilderness tents our ancestors inhabited. Sukkot customarily is a time for invited guests to share meals in the Sukkah. As I enjoyed my first two meals with community and family in the Sukkah at our synagogue and at my home, I was filled with contentment. This is what happiness is about – gratitude and sharing, relationships and memories.
No wonder the Sukkah is a symbol of peace. With a little more time together for Shabbat, and our years punctuated by joyous seasonal festivals like Sukkot, we can palpably feel that we are all part of one family. On this Sukkot, that is my hope and prayer. May the source of Peace spread over us all a Sukkah of peace.