“An emotional roller-coaster?” As a 17-year-old student (way back in the day), I vividly remember Rabbi Brovender describing the Jewish year that way. I don’t remember anything else about that class aside from that line and the fact that it made absolutely no sense to me. With all the humility of a teenager, it sounded like just another platitude, a background sound-bite that comes as part and parcel of Jewish education. It just didn’t jive with the reality I knew.
What I have realized in the years since that class is that holidays (and Judaism in general) are not going to be meaningful, stirring, or inspiring of their own accord, unless we put in enough elbow grease to find the meaning and inspiration.
All too often, we approach Judaism the way young people approach marriage. They fall in love and expect to be living happily ever after. Anyone who has been married for a few years knows that this is not how marriage works. The home will be only as warm and loving as the partners will make it to be. A good relationship requires effort, cultivation, and an emotional investment. No golden anniversary has ever been celebrated on the strength of an infatuation alone.
It is rare that we think of Judaism as of a relationship with God, yet that it exactly what it is. The word for commandments mitzvot comes not only from the root letzavot – to “command,” but also from tzavta – together. Cultivating the emotions of love and awe of God, being in an active connection, is as much a commandment as observing Shabbat and eating kosher.
This sheds new light on the often-quoted (and thus bland) analogy, comparing the relationship between God and the Jewish People to marriage. Beyond the connotations of connection and commitment, the analogy suggests that having a relationship with God, finding meaning in His Torah, requires at least as much work as building a happy marriage.
The search for meaning will lead each person to a different place. There are 70 facets to the Torah. A Torah scroll is said to have 600,000 letters corresponding to the 600,000 (primordial) Jewish souls. There is something for everyone. With enough effort, it is possible to find a direction that will strike a chord. Sometimes, learning new Torah will expose us to ideas we haven’t considered. At other times, personal growth work will shed a new light on familiar rituals.
Whatever it is, meaningful Judaism won’t come on its own. We know we need to work to earn money, to exercise to be healthy, and to educate our kids for them to become good people. So why do we think that spiritual fulfillment will fall into our lap out of the blue? The expectation that it is somehow the responsibility of God to inspire us and show us the light, while we just sit back and relax, or else the Torah is no good, is mildly juvenile.
Sometimes, a small voice whispers into my ear asking whether God really cares. There are 8 billion people on this planet alone, so how is it possible that what I do matters. And then I ask myself whether this voice also shows up to probe the significance of the things that are important to me. Somehow, I have never questioned the impact of my parenting on my kids, the importance of my work for my clients, or whether anybody cares that I am nice to the neighbors. When I understand the connection between my actions and the outcome, there is no question in my mind that what I do matters.
So when we ask ourselves whether God really cares about our Jewish observance, we are really just projecting our lack of understanding onto Him. If we could see, feel, and understand the meaning in reciting a prayer, in fasting, or in shaking a lulav, we wouldn’t be questioning God’s interest.
Today, almost 25 years later, Rabbi Brovender’s words make perfect sense. With sufficient preparation and a carefully-attuned listening ear, each season comes with its inspirations and challenges, messages and takeaways. A Torah lifestyle is anything but stale and boring.
The Talmud relates that in the days of the Temple, Yom Kippur was one of the two most joyous days of the year. Young women would go out to dance in the vineyards and young men would come by to search out a bride. Both sides would actively pursuing a relationship.
As Yom Kippur approaches, we can reclaim some of that joy by embracing the hope that we can find the deep satisfaction, the incomparable feeling of wholeness, when things “click” together. When the rituals we have observed for decades start to resonate and inspire. When we can feel the love for God and feel His love back.
It is in our power, if we are willing to work. If just like the High Priest, whose service we will follow in the Yom Kippur mussaf, we toil tirelessly in search of meaning.