For most of my life, I spent Rosh Hashanah in small congregations. Sometimes about thirty people, other times maybe one hundred. These past few years at Beth Abraham, I am inspired when I look out and see several hundred people, together in the middle of the week.
In a world that pushes us so often to value superficial things – you take the time for the High Holy Days. In an era when people often skimp on the time it takes to reflect on our lives and our relationships – you take time on a workday to be at the synagogue.
Our High Holy Day services are much more than a script in a book and traditional melodies. Each of us – the rabbi, the cantors, each individual, and the community – has to bring something.
For me, the most important thing I bring is a conviction that these holy days matter. I couldn't lead us if I didn't believe that these days can transform us. I guide our services from the idea that everyone is ready for something. To be supported in a decision or direction, or to think hard about one. To be challenged about an aspect of life, or to learn an idea or a tool to heal a relationship.
From those beliefs flow a number of things. One is what in Hebrew is called kavvanah – a focus on the service and on all of you, no matter where you are sitting. Then there are the words I add to what is written in the book. There are printed materials, with explanations and questions. I pause the service periodically for a brief centering thought. I deliver a talk each morning on a theme I believe is important to our lives and our community.
You have to bring something as well. The most important thing is your own seriousness about the meaning of these days. Even though the cantors and I lead from the front, we don't alone carry the service. When people are not just going through the motions, it is palpable in our Sanctuary. You can feel it, you can hear it sometimes in our blended voices.
The energy of a group, all committed to reflection and growth, gives each of us more encouragement. None of us can learn or probe our lives on our own. We help each other when we are individually committed to the purpose of the High Holy Days. And I urge you, as well, to take some time to bring your attention outside yourself. Think about people near you, and far from you in our space. Offer a prayer of some kind that others, too, may find healing, comfort, and direction in the new year.
It helps to come to services prepared. The cantors and I prepare, both by going over the service and by thinking about our own lives. So too, you should prepare. The days and weeks leading to the Rosh Hashanah are times for cheshbon ha-nefesh, which means “soul-accounting” or self-reflection.
And you can prepare by orienting yourself to the prayer service. Further in the bulletin and also on our website is a brief explanatory outline of the flow of the service. Our synagogue's more detailed printed booklet is available online at rabbijon.com/high-holidays.html. It contains my explanations of each part of the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The booklet also has some thoughts on prayer and theology, which I wrote especially for those who struggle with belief in God or the purpose of prayer.
People assume that I am very busy getting ready for the High Holy Days. While I devote time to preparing for services, my time is always first and foremost for you. Call me or come by, to ask questions or for a conversation about the things on your mind this time of year. I will never be too busy for you.
wish you all a Shana
Tova U'metuka, a
good and sweet year,