The Thing about the High Holidays

The Jewish High Holidays are such a strange and challenging phenomenon. Hundreds of people pile into synagogue, dressed in uncomfortable clothes, sitting uncomfortably close together, challenged to find parking. Even those of use who are familiar and comfortable with synagogue rituals find that we are in a different place that is not familiar. Not to mention with the holidays coming during the bustle of the start of the school year it’s hard to concentrate on religion. Those of us in careers outside of school seem to have an uptick in professional crises and those of us whose careers are in the synagogue sure do.

Ostensibly were are to be thinking about repentance, about sin and trying to be a better person. But I look around the room and wonder how many people are thinking about that. Maybe they’re thinking about family, and tradition, and those are good things, but not actually the theme of the holiday. What do people get out of these holidays? What obligation have they fulfilled? I spent the morning of Shabbat Shuvah, the Saturday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at Shir Hadash, at a small Reconstructionist congregation and we actually discussed this: how people seem to feel that have fulfilled some obligation just by attendance for these few days. But is what Judaism asks really just to show up for the family tradition? Isn’t it asking us to truly reexamine our lives? Maybe even reexamine those very traditions we might be following yet not letting them newly affect us?

I have this idea that High Holidays could be more like a workshop in how to be a better person. We’ll keep the liturgy on hand as a reference, to prevent us from getting too caught up in faddish self-improvement, but run things differently: discussion groups, break-out sessions, inspring presentations, shared meals and drinks as part of the actual event. I’ve seen plenty of once-a-year conferences that manage to break up the day and serve lunch. It’s not as if there is no option to staying in our seats for hours, paging through liturgy few understand, and going home hungry. You’d come out of Rosh Hashanah inspired by the plans you’ve made; and ten days later— which is just enough time to realize sticking to that diet or not fighting with your spouse over that same thing is not going be easy—you come back to really recommit, taking your work so seriously this time you skip lunch without even noticing.

As we enter Yom Kippur, here’s the traditional greeting: G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May your fate be sealed for a good year to come.

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