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?
“There is nothing new under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9.
A High Holiday Prayer, as I imagine it, of a beloved, longtime member of my synagogue…
“In time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I am thankful for so many things: The gift of health, for me and my family, that we live in relative security, that we do our best with what we have – but thank the Lord -God knows that nobody’s perfect. This year, again I will try to be a better person. It’s important to try, so I’ll sit and I’ll listen, and I’ll pray, but thank the Lord – God understands that in reality I’m not so different than I was last year. -Amen.”
This is my third high holiday season off the pulpit, and frankly, the only time I really miss it. I miss that guy, and every synagogue has one, who comes early, one of the last to leave, but in fact seems to be going through the motions. I perfectly aware of the lesson that to recognize these qualities in another suggest something similar in myself? Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his gut, as if to say, “go ahead, rabbi, try and inspire me.” Honestly, I always enjoyed the challenge and if unsuccessful, I would consoled myself with the tantalizing idea that perhaps there is a genetic predisposition for religiosity, ‘so what could I do if he’s not interested?’
The way we approach the High Holidays is completely in our control. That’s what I should remind him. It’s a matter of perspective. A late rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Eddie Tennenbaum (z’l) would say, “If you feel distant from God, who moved?”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “(There is a) statement from the book of Ecclesiastes ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ And I disagree with that statement! I would say there is nothing stale under the sun, except that human beings become stale.”
If you have been approaching the high holidays every year, and it’s become stale, consider this perspective, and hopefully it’s new for you, and might add meaning to the holiday around the corner:
At this time of year we are not only accountable for our mistakes and need to seek forgiveness for them, but also, and just as importantly, we are accountable for all the moments of joy and celebration that came our way and we failed to take part.
Consider this: What moments of joy were out there and I was too busy? It’s missing the joy, the extraordinary within the ordinary, that makes man stale. Let this be the year you see the forrest AND the trees.
This is the last Hebrew month before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Traditionally, it is a time when we begin to reflect on the year that has passed, the work we have done, and the mistakes we have made. As part of a daily prayer practice many people recite Psalm 27.
Psalm 27 is one of my favorite psalms. I feel the author’s desire to be close to God. The yearning that God will protect us, keep us safe. Every day I reach out to God and wait…wait for an answer, wait for God’s comforting presence. Some days I feel it and others I do not. But for some inexplicable reason just reciting this psalm renews my faith. I give it to you here in the hope that you can make your own connections to it.
New International Version (NIV)
1 The LORD is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour[a] me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, LORD; lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.
This is real and you are completely unprepared!
This is probably the best title of a book ever. Written by Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared takes the reader through a journey of personal transformation which begins with the holiday of Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and concludes with the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah where we celebrate finishing the year Torah reading cycle. He argues that Tisha B’Av which we just observed yesterday, Sunday, July 29th, marks the start of the Jewish high holiday season. The high point of which is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Lew asserts that in order for someone to be properly prepared to do teshuva, repentance, and start over with a new slate in the New Year, we need to start a period of self reflection now. Today!
You have seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks to reflect on the past year. Think about those things you did well, and those not so well. Identify those people you need to ask forgiveness of and begin the process of asking. This is real. The time starts now. Do not wait until Rosh Hashanah to start this spiritual process.
May your time of reflection uncover new realizations. May you be strengthened by your process. And may you be written in the Book of Life.