It’s the eve of Yom Kippur and we are knee-deep in our holiday season. We menu-plan and shop and cook and freeze; we invite guests and polish the silver and iron the white tablecloth. As we welcome Rosh Hashana, there’s the tradition to gather new things for the upcoming year: a new fruit to introduce unique flavors, chic fashions to recharge our tired wardrobe, fresh flowers to bedazzle and grace the table.
But with all of that holiday prep, let’s not forget that the new year has meaning beyond the sumptuous meals and calculating vacation days at work. When it’s still summer-warm, the shofar reminds us to peek around the corner, guiding us to more somber days. The late Saturday night first selichot prayer forces us take notice that something momentous is about to happen. Back-to-school is not just for the children; an educational experience is in the air for us all. The little ones come home with projects, excited about what will unfold at home, but we owe it to ourselves to do the same.
This is the time of year to take a step back before we step foot inside the synagogue. We expend unusual time and effort to wish each other a good year, sending cards and posting messages; we reach out and call those we are not in touch with on a regular basis. The words slip off our lips easily, as we express our hopes for a good and sweet year, a successful and healthy one, as if wishing makes it true. But how do we get from the apples and honey to financial success, good health, and disciplined children? The shofar and the pomegranate and the squeaky patent leather shoes set aside for yom tov are but signals for us to pay attention to our lives, to heed the sounds, and think about the universe and who might be at the helm while we are busy running, doing, chopping, mopping.
And then, before we know it, we are seating on chairs labeled with our names, the white velvet cover is on the ark, the machzor is in our hands. And we realize that we forgot to take the time to prepare for this. How should we go about praying for long life, for the resources to pay our bills, to find a soulmate, to get along with our family? How do we daven for our own, personal good year, or simply to interact honestly and well with each other? What happened to the individualized thoughts that were swimming in our heads a year ago, ones that we vowed to pin down on paper and tuck into the siddur for next year?
When we flip through the machzor, where do we find those special words and how do we pray for that good year which we so desperately seek? Have you noticed that the tefillot on Rosh Hashana are not about us? Aside from Netana Tokef and Avenu Malkenu, the focus is actually not our hopes and wishes.
So, what is prayer, and what is the purpose of Rosh Hashana davening? The tefillot have been standardized, but sometimes the printed words feel distant and hollow, the words as elusive as Gd Himself.
Our forefathers organically reached out to Gd, as people in pain are wont to do, and our daily — read formal — prayers today echo those conversations. Later, prayer ensured the continuity of connection in the absence of the holy Temple, which had afforded the community the opportunity to gather, celebrate life cycle events, or atone for sins. Traditions of animal sacrifice in the presence of Gd’s holy spirit was thus replaced by communal prayer.
Generations have passed since the oral word was scribed, and the written word became expansive when printing became wildly popular. But in the process we have lost our personal signature. With prescribed tefillot we don’t own the words, and our connection to them can be tenuous and diluted. For some there is a language barrier, for others reciting animal offerings feels culturally foreign to us. Perhaps we don’t want to thank the Almighty for being benevolent or healing the sick when that has not been our personal experience. Or maybe it’s that we are so intent on our own agenda that praises to Gd don’t come naturally to us.
When we borrow someone else’s words we run the risk of sitting passively and waiting for inspiration, for the letters to be infused with meaning. Is prayer a vehicle for inspiration or should we naturally be inspired to pray? If we each have a unique kinship with Gd, shouldn’t we be creating our own moments, crafting our own personal tefillot, even alongside others in a communal space? We have every right to substitute our own words or tears, to pray in whatever form or language our heart takes us.
Yet, the machzor, our guide to these exceedingly important high holidays where we spend time in the synagogue for hours on end, is really about the fact that our life is not in our hands. Pages and pages and paragraphs and more declare Gd as King of the universe and the Master of all beings. And who is making those statements? Why it’s us, of course.
I believe that the purpose of the high holidays is to set the tone for the rest of the year. We have been placed on this earth without our consent, and we exit with nary a choice. In between those fateful days, our life is ours to live with free choice. Or is it? The raw truth is that we are given not only guidelines from the Torah — as other religions have theirs — but the laws of nature direct us, as well. We have no control over time and space, or weather or sickness, or the genes that dictate our physical and emotional well-being. But in between the raindrops of those constraints is where we are free to live our lives.
We can choose where to live and who to marry and what profession to pursue and how to dress or speak or eat. Our options are a thousand-fold for each minutia of life, but we need to be reminded by the shofar and the prayers that we are orchestrating only a tiny slice of life that resides layers below the glass ceiling. I believe that our Rosh Hashana is the acceptance that, although we can live with every fiber of our being, every passion to its fullest, and avail ourselves of every alternative, we are still but mice running in a maze designed especially for us.
During our son’s illness and in the aftermath of his passing, I probed within and without our religion, and demanded and wailed and begged for the meaning of life. A mere two weeks after we got up from shiva we found ourselves in the community synagogue, drawn there as we have always been and continue to be. And what I know is this: My life is but a speck in the sand of the universe, past and future. There is something beyond all of us and all of this, and only Gd knows what it is. This knowledge is etched in my soul, borne of burying my son. I see and understand things in a way I wouldn’t recommend to others.
Our season with Gilad, from the time of his passing at the end of the summer to his birthday in the fall, forms the bookends to our High Holidays. This season of holidays are enmeshed with our personal sorrow and no soul searching is required for us to think deeply of life and wonder at Gd’s presence in it, for that is our inner, daily battle with Gd.
Yet, prayer still leaves me confounded. I know that the power of prayer isn’t all that I want or hope it should be, and I’m disappointed and disillusioned by that. My life has not turned out the way I expected, and I struggle with the standardized words of prayer. But at least I am still in a conversation with Gd.
My Rosh Hashana moment in shul came when I heard my husband’s voice leading the congregation. That, and that alone, can move me to believe that connection and inspiration through prayer is possible. Whether I follow along with the written word or hum along with his father’s melodies, I am finally present for tefillah. I may choose to mouth my own honest, no-holds-barred, sentiments to Gd or I may have the courage to join in the group prayer, chanting together as our single notes form a powerful cacophony that surely both Gd and Gilad can hear.
I will spend my days on this earth trying to understand what life is supposed to be about. But whatever form it takes, prayer is always a possibility.
Gmar Chatima Tova.