Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – September, 2011

My goal for bulletin articles this year is to reflect on the theme of holiday celebrations. I believe that many adult Jews carry around within them a distorted picture of Jewish holidays based on the education they received in religious school.  Religious school education is not necessary bad education, but it is unsophisticated.  It is designed for elementary age children (most religious school do not re-teach holidays to high school students).  Therefore, each month I want to address an aspect or theme of one holiday on a adult level.

Eating apples and honey and honeycake, gleefully throwing bread into a pond during Tashlikh, hearing the shofar and counting the seconds of the tekiah gedolah are the hooks that sweeten and enliven Rosh Hashanah.  The real meaning of the holiday, the part that we might try to teach to children but that they are not yet capable of understanding on the deepest level, is how we might embrace renewal and how we might experience real and fundamental change in the way we behave and respond to the world.  This is the stuff that people pay big money to therapists to do, and spend months and years doing.

Rosh Hashanah is a time to renewal relationships that have gone bad or simply become stale. Atonement is the goal, and the deadline is Yom Kippur.  The period leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is the time to examine how we have failed to nurture the relationships in our life, both with the people around us and with God.

The most difficult pill to swallow on Rosh Hashanah is the idea that we are responsible for everything that has happened or will happen to us.  “It’s not my fault,” should no longer be in our vocabulary. We should behave as if everything we do affects what happens to us.  If we are a victim, it is because we placed ourselves in a position to become victimized. This is a radical notion which may not be objectively true, but this is the message that Rosh Hashanah delivers, and this is the only way that full transformation is every possible – when we accept full and total responsibility for our lives. Rosh Hashanah rejects the “blame game,” in which people and organizations and political factions seek to blame the “other” for things which have gone wrong.  Rather, we are encouraged to look within ourselves to see what we have done to cause the problem. We may not be the sole cause or even the primary cause, but the theology of Rosh Hashanah believes that it is more useful for us to root out our contribution to the problem, since ultimately that’s all we can control.

In this month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, here are some things that you can do to achieve a sense of repentance and renewal:

Make a mental list of things you want to do better in the coming year. Consider what personality trait or traits led you do do the things you regret.  Consider the following questions:

In what way does Judaism serve as a guide in your life?  Do you draw upon Jewish wisdom to help you make business or personal decisions?  Does Judaism feel inadequate or too antiquated or irrelevant to address your day to day needs?  Do you feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of knowing how to ask the right questions of Judaism, in order to get the answers you seek?

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, use the following questions to enhance and guide your prayer experience:

At what points in the service are you moved?  Emotionally by the cantor?  Intellectually by the Siddur?  Intellectually or emotionally by the rabbi’s words?  Physically by the incessant chatter of the people sitting behind you?

What emotions do you feel (here’s a sample list from a to z – out of order)? – boredom, apathy, joy, fear, worry, compassion, eagerness, friendship, pettiness, verisimilitude, happiness, insult, xenophobia, zealotry, uneasiness, sadness, rage, openness, questioning, jadedness, genuineness, decisiveness, nasty, tentativeness, magical?

In what way does Rosh Hashanah in the synagogue facilitate a prayer experience ?  At what points does the liturgy, the sometimes free translation of the prayers, or the commentary and additional readings, move you to a deeper examination of your life?  What does the experience of High Holiday services do for you, how does it affect you?  As a general question, do you consider it to be the responsibility of the synagogue and the prayer book to engage you, or do you consider it to be your responsibility to engage with the synagogue and the prayer book?  To address the (Divine) elephant in the room, what role does God play in this whole drama?  Is God a commanding presence, a relationship presence, a supportive presence, a demanding presence, an imperious presence, an irrelevant presence, an ineffectual presence, an emotional presence, a non-presence?