Thursday, September 03, 2015

Five things to look forward to at the High Holidays

(1) SHUL

I know some of you hate shul and can't stand piyutim. I'm of a different mind. I like pretending to be a monk three times per year. I enjoy the poetry, the mummer of prayer, the music. A day devoted entirely to pursuits of the soul and mind, with all other obligations suspended. Perhaps the difference is that I don't pretend that I am praying for life. Instead I pretend I've joined a beloved community, and I try to groove on the all-inclusive spirit of brotherhood the pervades the sanctuary during the Days of Awe.

(2) FOOD

I know this might be inconsistent with what I just said, but im ein kemach, ein Torah. Honey cake, Canard au Miel, (duck with honey) and round challah with raisins are some of the many delights I anticipate.


I can't promise God is listening, but spending 10 days wishing health, wealth and happiness to everyone we meet rubs off on the human psyche. We start to take less for granted, and to gain a sense of how interconnected we are. Too much of that vanishes the moment the post-Yom Kippur Maariv starts, but while it lasts its nice. I also never grow tired of the Rosh Hashana night ritual of greeting all comers with the extended blessing and the loud emphasis on "l'alter." It's playacting, to be sure, but so what?


Not to give short shift to the other two themes, but I'm a romantic who sees great poignancy in the idea that God never forgets us, no matter what. I like the idea of promises kept, and obligations fulfilled. I find great strength in the notion that God is a man of his word, so to speak.

For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer.

“To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
 Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

These words from Isaiah 54 are the best in the whole Hebrew Bible, and to me it feels like we spend most of our three long days of prayer reassuring ourselves that they are true, to the extent that whether or not they are empirically true begins to feel irrelevant.


The four maariv piyutim are perfect, and as long as the chazan doesn't debase them with a bubblegum tune the experience of singing them as you sway together with your family, friends and neighbors approaches the sublime. Every year, I ask myself "Will this be the year the chazan or the congregation disapoint  me?" but every year my expectations are met

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