Rosh Hashana 5771: Where the Book Am I?

It’s that time again for the High Holidays or Days of Awe depending on what you want to call them, and instead of being prepared for them, I am not feeling very spiritual lately. A big part of that is something that I have hinted at almost every year, but never said outright: I hate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Many of my reasons are pretty common reasons for not finding this a very spiritually connected holiday, though these days are meant to inspire Awe and be the most connected. On my list is the changes in prayer space. Then there is the pretty morbid liturgy. Third is all the extra people, and the need for tickets. Finally there is the theological problem.

It is at this time of year I tend to think of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay The Spirit of Jewish Prayer Originally a speech to an assembly of Conservative Rabbis, who he called a mere “master of ceremonies” in the speech, many decades later it still rings true:

We have developed the habit of praying by proxy. Many congregants seem to have adopted the principle of vicarious prayer. The rabbi or the cantor does the praying for the congregation. In particular, it is the organ that does the singing for the whole community. Too often the organ has become the prayer leader. Indeed, when the organ begins to thunder, who can compete with its songs? Men and women are not allowed to raise their voices, unless the rabbi issues the signal. They have come to regard the rabbi as a master of ceremonies. Is not their mood, in part, a reflection of our own uncertainties? Prayer has become an empty gesture, a figure of speech. [Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 101-2 ,Google Books]

I feel that way every Rosh Hashanah. I know I’m supposed to get dressed up, grab my tickets, tallit and machzor, go to synagogue and pray. Yet the prayer is hollow and empty. The environment of prayer changes so much it is hard to pray. The Netana Tokef tells us we are supposed to be praying as one of the three things necessary be written into the book of life, but it never feels like the fervent prayer such effort requires. It’s more like a night at the opera. The cantor is at full voice and talent, and the rabbi is so remote as to be on another planet. All warmth and fervor is replaced by cold prayers performed by a choir and cantor. I do not pray, I watch a performance of others praying for me.
Unlike the weekly Shabbat services, there are hundreds of people I have never seen except at this time. Also dressed in their finery, they seem little interested in the ideals of communal prayer, but fulfilling a yearly obligation, outdressing their neighbor, and socializing with everyone else who doesn’t show up except this time of year. Why things are the way they are is that these paying customers seem to expect it to be that night at the opera, and synagogue financial survival depends on them showing up. This has been my experience since I was old enough to be in the same sanctuary as my parents for the holidays, in Conservative, Reform and Renewal synagogues. I can never forget the Kol Nidre service when I was twelve. I was almost thrown out of Kol Nidre for not being an adult paying customer. If my father hadn’t made a huge stink, I would have spent Kol Nidre in the same dark parking lot I spent most of Rosh Hashanah in. Like Heschel mentioned over forty years ago, this is not one synagogue I’m talking about, but a systemic problem.

I written many times before about my view of this time theologically. Traditional images have us judged and placed in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. On Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed in the book we belong, and our destiny sealed at the close of Yom Kippur. I have had a different view. There is only one book, our Book of Fully Living. The question of Rosh Hashanah is not if we will make one list or another, but if we will fill our pages with fully living. What this season is about is for us to get ourselves oriented and set up for a year of fully living.

In my current infatuation for boats, it might be good to think about this season more like a boat. Every so often, the boat needs to come out of the water, and undergo thorough maintenance. Painting, cleaning, overhauling the engines, replacing the lines and even removing barnacles are all tasks which make our sea adventures so much more rewarding, and assures us that we will not run into trouble in the future. So too with the holidays. It is our time to connect with God and clean the spiritual schmutz from our souls, and replace the worn out parts . We do this through three things: Prayer, repentance and the righteous deeds.

Yet this year as we approach the High Holidays, I feel none of those three as I have apparently entered a spiritual crisis. My disconnect from the way most people do prayer, particularly during the holidays is one of the biggest problems with this. Many of my assumptions this year I’ve been led to question, many I have found no answers for. Even without answers, a lot of illusions have been shattered lately. It has left me wondering far too much. I’m not as spiritually connected as I once was, and wondering what that really means. I have a spiritual vacuum in my life. Where I am and where I am going seem totally unknown. I am sailing in dark waters on the moonless night of Rosh Hashanah.

I do not know what will happen this week, and how attending services at two different congregations will go. I have an idea of how I’m going to get out of this, and I’ll write more about that next week. I realize I don’t hate the holidays of course, I just strongly object to how they are observed. most especially how we pray.

But let me wish you all a L’shana Tovah, a good New Year, and may you have another full, rich chapter in the Book of Fully Living.


Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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2 comments on “Rosh Hashana 5771: Where the Book Am I?
  1. Larry Kaufman says:

    How about remembering what I call the Mayflower Midrash, the verse that used to be posted in Mayflower Donut Shops across the country, As you wander on through life, Brother/Whatever be your goal,/Keep your eye upon the donut/And not upon the hole.

    The HHD worshipers (or audience) that you disdain are expressing their “pintele Yid” in their way, and in doing so are supporting an environment that succors you the rest of the year. We have been taught not to scorn the inferior motivation — im lo lishma, ba lishma.

    Without subscribing to the Day of Judgment theme, I always appreciate the idea of new beginnings that come with the birthday of the world. Shana tova.

  2. Shlomo says:

    Hadn't heard of Mayflower doughnuts, but two things strike me about them: 1) Accoring to Wikipedia they appently invented the hole in the doughnut. 2) They are out of business.

    When Mayflower spent more time thinking about their doughnut and cute slogan than the hole that made them noticed, look what happens. In the sanctuary, the hole is expanding, threatening to leave no doughnut left. Every new entry in the Yiskor book makes that hole a little wider, every walker and oxygen bottle points to an inevitable time that is all too close.

    You are completely right and I wrote so — The once a year people are key to finanacial stability of a congregation. But what happens when they die off? Is this phenomenon exclusive to certian generations? Will Generation X and subsequent generations keep up that cycle?

    I have no problem with how people worship. Though from some one who has to sit in the cheap plastic seat section (my reward for helping out with the canned food drive), I can tell you the gossiping and petty games I have to observe in the back can be a detriment to my prayer.

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