Rote and ritual are perhaps the natural enemy of progress. To be sure, rote and ritual provide us with comfort – the security of constancy and assurance of reliable, repeatable experiences. Just ask McDonalds – the pioneer and leaders in systems and repeatability – who work very hard to ensure that the store experience and food taste are identical anywhere in the world. That is why people travelling the world will seek the comfort and familiarity of McDonalds rather than take a risk on something new and different.
For much the same reasons, religion is full of rote and ritual. The form of prayer and the observances are the same or similar all over the world. There is also a comfort in knowing we are continuing traditions that our parents did, that their parents did before them, and theirs before them. And it’s not just out of guilt that we pass these traditions to our children. It’s the desire to keep being part of something bigger than ourselves, something that provides constancy and comfort that we need.
And yet rote and ritual can often become stale with time. Consider the excitement of a barmitzvah boy putting on tefillin or being called to the Torah for the very first time. I’ve been putting on tefillin for so many years I can do it blindfolded (but I’ve never tried). Every day I recite the same prayers and sometimes the time passes and prayers have finished, and I know that I’ve said it all, but don’t remember saying much of it. It’s prayer on auto-pilot.
This is much the same with any rote task. Our brains learn and assimilate the task to the point that the subconscious takes over and can repeat these tasks automatically without effort. This is known as muscle memory. It’s like driving to and from work on the same route, day after day. My mind might wander or be absorbed by a song on the radio or a phone call, and then – whoosh – I’ve arrived at my destination and don’t quite remember how I got there.
And so another year has passed and Rosh Hashanah is upon us. The ritual changes from a daily one to an annual one, and this is an important distinction. Forty Rosh Hashanahs are less rote than putting on tefillin ten thousand times. By simple maths, an annual rote is far less likely to get stale than a daily or weekly one. There is a comfort in returning to the liturgy and melodies that seek to inspire and energise us. We perform some rituals just once or twice a year, and that gives us the opportunity to reflect on the year that passes since the last time we did it, and look forward to the year before us until the next time we hope to do it. As we say in the Kol Nidrei prayer – “from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement that comes for our benefit”.
In the intervening days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are a number of slight variations to the standard form of prayer: changed words in the kaddish, and extra verses inserted before Barchu and during the Amida. Returning to the driving analogy, these are like the speed humps you might encounter on the road while driving a familiar route. You can’t continue at the same speed. You must slow down and negotiate the speed hump before continuing the journey.
In the same way, these prevent our prayer from being the same mindless rote of the rest of the year. We must stop, take notice, and reflect before resuming. These changes have the effect of upgrading the daily prayers in those intervening days from daily ritual to more of an annual ritual.
Thus the entire Ten Days of Repentance are a period that facilitates greater introspection and mindfulness. They allow us to take a break from the often stale rote of the rest of the year, and stop to smell the roses. A chance to look back at what we did or didn’t achieve, and looking forward to how the next year can be better.
Let’s hope we can use this time to re-energise the ritual of the year to come. Often we say after the conclusion of the season of chagim that it’s ‘back to normal’. But after the chagim it would be a backward step to how things were before they started. Rather, the season should be a platform to redefine our personal ‘normal’ to something better than before.