I sit in shul on Yom Kippur, prayer book in hand, listening. The Hebrew words wash over me, reduced to their essence, a series of melodic sounds that flow through the rise and fall of an ancient trope. They gently draw me back even as they pull me forward.
So it goes on the holidays, the heft of a machzor, the cry of the chazzan, the stale odor of the sanctuary as the day grows long and night begins to fall, and images past and present conflate.
I sit through not one but two yizkor memorial services, the solemn prayers to remember a mother, a father, other loved ones now gone and recall how my parents shooed us out of the sanctuary as the service was to begin, shushing us softly, murmuring that we should not have to know of such loss, not to know of such grief. And here I sit, first at one shul, then another, my parents no longer alive, surrounded by dozens of others, yet alone.
In the quiet I think back to what was and ahead to what will be. Of my parents who left behind the stringent orthodoxy of my grandparents and embraced the traditional reform which spoke to them with its new interpretations of ritual and its compelling call to social action. Of my own fascination with ritual lost, and found, and of the competing pull of contemporary life. Of my children who are truly 21st century Americans, flourishing in a pluralistic society where difference, including the difference of religion, has been diminished, where being Jewish is just one of their many identities, where each finds his or her own way of expressing that identity.
And I watch first in one shul, then another, where men and women sit together and share equally in the honors on the bimah. Where a man chants the haftorah, then a woman carries the torah for each of us to reach out and touch. And then, where men and women sit separately, where the rabbi and chazzan are men, yet the torah is carried throughout the shul and the rabbi speaks from the center of the sanctuary for all the congregation to hear.
Ah, the pendulum swings, preserving tradition as it was and reimagining it as it will be, and our communities striving mightily to open up space for both. So it is as Sukkot approaches, and our sukkahs, those fragile outdoor dwellings built to commemorate the Israelites wandering in the desert, are left open to the heavens, allowing the fullness of the moon to shine upon us, the starry night sky to remind of the divine protection and province that shelters us all. And, so too, they are open on one side, beckoning guests to enter, welcoming both the revered patriarchs and matriarchs of old who are said to visit, but, too, all those guests, across the ever widening breadth of Jewish life, who we invite to partake of our hospitality.
And, so as the old year turns to new, as it cycles round yet again, we continue to move forward, and back.