Posts Tagged: High Holy Days
A number of years ago, I approached the High Holy Days with a great sense of inadequacy. I was keenly aware of all the ways in which I missed the mark, that I fell short of my own expectations and that I was unable to keep to my intention. It was a sobering and unpleasant realization.
As I was working with this sense of inadequacy, I was looking forward to the part of the Rosh Hashanah service that includes a full prostration. Not every synagogue does this, but traditionally, during the Malkhut section of the shofar service, we recite the Aleinu. As we say the words “We bend the knee and bow before You,” some communities engage in a full bowing, sinking to our knees and lowering our heads to the floor, in a deep motion of submission to the King of Kings (or, if you prefer, all that we cannot control in our fragile lives.)
I was anticipating this embodied experience to be one of humility, of publically acknowledging my imperfection on this holy day. But instead something surprising happened.
As I touched my head to the floor, what rushed through me was not a confirmation of my unworthiness, but rather a wave of forgiveness. This is how human beings are, imperfect, I recognized anew, and I am no different. And it is okay. Forgiveness is possible, even forgiveness of ourselves, and with that softening, we are actually more free to move through the world in sacred ways.
I suspect that many of us will hear sermons this High Holy Day season about the urgency of the work there is to do in the world – and it is in fact urgent. But perhaps we can find the space to practice forgiveness for our own sweet selves, for not living up to our expectations and not doing enough and not doing what we do perfectly. After all, as we are reminded in Unetaneh Tokef, we are compared to a broken dish, a breeze passing by, a grass that withers. And perhaps it is precisely because of our vulnerability and our imperfection that we are so precious and so worthy of compassion.
May we find forgiveness for our own humanity so that 5778 might be filled with blessings, sweetness and peace for us and for the world.
Elul is coming to an end with the grandeur and mystery of the High Holy Days about to begin. In New York the weather shifted this week too; the sun is still warm, but the wind is fresh and even chilly, signs of colder days approaching.
Last week I mentioned the new building that is being constructed outside our windows. I have been watching the workers, climbing, moving and hammering, seemingly without a care, on the drop-off edge of a concrete slab 20 stories above the street. As I write, one man in a neon green vest is clinging to the outside of a plywood ladder, nothing underneath him but a net two floors below, whacking at something with a tool. He is clipped on with a harness, but from here, it looks pretty terrifying.
Fear. I remember studying once with Gabe Goldman, a naturalist and Jewish educator. He told of having led a hands-on workshop about how to handle very, very sharp knives, so sharp that you wouldn’t even feel it if you cut off your finger. He taught his students how to hold them, work with them, and respect them. He then followed the workshop with a lesson about yirah, “fearing” or being “in awe” of God.
After the sweet, mellow days of Elul, these High Holy Days, Days of Awe, give us a glimpse of something stronger and a little more fearful. They encourage us to consider the mystery of the unknown days ahead, days that may hold great blessings and great suffering, and probably a little of both. They give us the forum to come face to face with our limits and the reality of our mortality. They challenge us to confront our own vulnerability in the face of the colder days that are coming.
But, like the men outside who are building a new building, a structure that will provide shelter for hundreds of people and stand witness to their labors for many years, the High Holy Days also give us the opportunity to take satisfaction in the work of our hands and to find joy in living this life, in company with fellow travelers, step by dangerous step, even when we feel we are dangling over the abyss.
May 5773 bring all of us more blessings than suffering, more expansiveness than constriction, more peace than conflict, and more joy than sorrow. May our practices give us tools for wisdom, gratitude and compassion. And may we find good companions (or a good Companion) for the journey who can support us with courage, love and guidance.
Summer is winding down. Elul begins on Saturday night. The beginning of Elul reminds me of a story I heard from Rabbi Sholom Rivkin (of blessed memory), a kind and learned man who was the Chief Rabbi of St. Louis for many years.
Rabbi Rivkin told that in the old days, if you wanted to go talk to the king, you had to think about who could help you get invited to the palace. You had to wear your best clothes and learn the court etiquette – how to enter the throne room, when to bow, what to say, where to look. It was all very complicated and very serious. But sometimes, the king just went for a walk in the fields. And at those times, anyone could just start walking along next to the king and share whatever was on their heart.
Elul is the season when the King goes walking in the fields.
I love this story – the imagery, the intimacy, the hope it conveys for coming close to the Divine. I feel my heart leap up: Yes! I too want to go for a walk with the King! (or the Queen – pick your metaphor of royalty.) I want that immediate access, the instant connection. So often I focus on learning the court ritual, or, as we say, “preparing the vessel” – committing to the form of the ritual, dragging my attention back over and over. I know that the practice is a tool that can create the possibility for those moments of awareness. Yet I yearn for those moments of grace.
I also love this story because the High Holy Days themselves are like the throne room, not like the open fields. They are arguably the most formal, complicated and serious days of our whole year. We (especially we clergy) could get seduced into thinking that the preparation for these Days of Awe is mostly involved with liturgy and choreography. But this is precisely when God invites greater accessibility of a very different kind.
And so part of my preparation for the Holy Days includes imagining:
- What would it be like if I could join God for that walk in the fields?
- How would I say hello?
- What would I share about my life?
- What would I ask for?
- What questions would I be asked?
- How would I answer?
- How would I take my leave?
Wishing you an inspiring, heart-opening beginning to these most holy of days!