- Judaic Studies
By Benjamin Levy, Dean of Judaic Studies
This Friday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of a ten-day period that represents the spiritual high-water mark of the Jewish calendar. For many Jews, these days are when they feel most connected, or obliged, to Jewish ritual life. For some, this might represent the only time of year they attend synagogue services, for others, the only time they actually try to say some of the prayers, or all of the prayers, or to do so with greater fervor and intensity than their usual practice. There has been much discussion this year about how, with the loss of traditional synagogue services and rituals, the High Holiday experience that people are used to and comfortable with will be inaccessible. This will leave many Jews wondering what to do, themselves lacking the ability, or even just the will to go through such long prayers alone. While that is undeniably true, I believe that this year presents us with a unique opportunity to get more in touch with the essence of the holidays, if only we are willing to change our typical focus.
In his much-lauded book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, the late Rabbi Alan Lew takes his readers through the holiday cycle, beginning with the 9th of Av in midsummer through the end of Sukkot in the fall, and describes the internal journey through which these holidays and their associated observances are designed to take you. The book opens powerfully with the following passage:
You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.
Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.
A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.
Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. The time of transformation is upon you. The world is once again cracking through the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth creaks open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once again, and your name is written in one of them.
But you don’t know which one.
The ten days that follow are fraught with meaning and dread. They are days when it is perfectly clear every second that you live in the midst of a chain of ineluctable consequence, that everything you do, every prayer you utter, every intention you form, every act of compassion you perform, ripples out from the center of your being to the end of time. Anger and its terrible cost lie naked before you. Grievance gives way to forgiveness. At the same time, you become aware that you also stand at the end of a long chain of consequences. Many things are beyond your control. They are part of a process that was set in motion long ago. You find the idea of this unbearable...
The events described in this passage are mostly centered around synagogue-based rituals, but the process it describes is an entirely, and profoundly, internal one. Rabbi Lew follows this passage up with the following anecdote:
R. Buckminster Fuller’s students once asked him to name the most important figure of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud, he said without a moment’s hesitation. They were shocked. Why Freud? Why not Einstein, about whom Fuller had written extensively, or some other figure from the world of science or economics or architecture, to which he had devoted his considerable energy? So Fuller explained himself. Sigmund Freud, he said, was the one who had introduced the single great idea upon which all the significant developments of the twentieth century had rested: the invisible is more important than the visible. You would never have had Einstein if Freud hadn’t convinced the world of this first. You would never have had nuclear physics.
The Jewish holiday cycle is full of ritual and prayer, outward expressions of inward processes, and we often mistake the former for being more important than the latter. One of the foundational components of Chassidut, what is often simplistically translated simply as Jewish Mysticism, is that what is happening in the inner world, be it of yourself or the spiritual realms or anywhere in between, is more important than what you can see on the surface of things.
The machzor from which we pray on Rosh HaShanah gives us the words that we need because we often are not up to the task of forming them ourselves. The sound of the shofar wakes us up because we have been asleep for too long. We beat our chests during the vidui, as we confess to sins we didn’t even know we had committed. But in the end, this is all about looking inward and telling ourselves, “I have made mistakes in the past, and I will make mistakes in the future, but I regret my past shortcomings and will strive to avoid future pitfalls.” The message of the High Holidays is, as Alexander Pope said, “to err is human.” While Pope’s message was really about the second clause of that sentence (“to forgive, divine”), the High Holiday cycle recognizes, as we must recognize ourselves, that we are flawed creatures, and that is okay. The key is to see our flaws, accept them as part of who we are, and to strive not to be perfect, but to do better.
This year, with no regular services to attend and the associated DIY experience that we are left with, many people see themselves as having two options: pray on their own (or while following an abridged Zoom service), which seems daunting and ultimately not as compelling as when one is in services in person, or else to just skip it altogether, chalking it up as another casualty of 2020, alongside big family celebrations, graduation, Color War, and dinner with friends. But there is a third option, an internal option, that just might get us closer to the real meaning of the holidays—spending some time reflecting on who we are, what matters most to us, and in what ways we have let others, and ourselves, down. This is a time to recognize our failings and make peace with them, accepting that they are only one part of who we are and that with some work, we can do even better.
Wishing you all a happy, healthy, meaningful, and sweet new year,