The Jewish High Holy Days, between Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) have just concluded. Because I was raised in the Conservative Judaic tradition where prayers were chanted almost exclusively in Hebrew, I experienced the related services as a time to think about the meaning of a new year, a new chance to be the best person I could be. What I liked most, though, was that I typically got to go shopping with my mother for a new Fall outfit just ahead of Rosh HaShanah. It felt celebratory to dress up and be part of the annual visibility of the Jewish community, as people walked to and from the Temple. I enjoyed hearing the familiar melodies of the prayers and singing those I knew from rote repetition, even if I didn’t understand their translation. I loved playing with friends among the dropping acorns while waiting for the adults to finish saying prayers for the deceased. I felt connected to the tradition, to the meaning and purpose of the holidays, and to the people who shared this background with me. But I never felt moved by these most important holy days until Michael and I began participating in the services streamed live online by Central Synagogue, New York. They are a pluralistic Reform congregation. Services in English and Hebrew. Engaging, inspiring, teaching, deeply touching.
If you’re wondering how Jews “get away with” only one day of atonement when Catholics deny themselves through 40 days of Lenten fasting and abstinence and Muslims will fast and abstain from sinful action through the month of Ramadan, this one page teaching from the Central Synagogue website underscores the seasonal period of reflection, repentance, reconnection, and renewal AND how the autumn Jewish holidays are sequenced to prioritize balance with joy-fulness. I encourage you to read it.
Let me also say that the musical quality of the services offered by clergy, congregants and staff, in my humble opinion, are equal to the most beautiful and motivational operatic and folk performances.
There is a Jewish story that suggests that each of us should walk around with two pieces of paper in our pockets. The first says, I am but dust and ashes and the second says, for my sake the world was created. The High Holy Days are our time to balance both of these ideas, by understanding both our own fragility and mortality in the universe, and our great power to ensure that the world does not look the same in the coming year as it does today. The entire High Holy Day season, from Elul through Simchat Torah, teaches us that we have the responsibility and the ability to close the gap between the world as it stands and the world as it ought to be.