Anticipating Tishrei

It’s been so long since I celebrated the High Holidays as a layperson that I’ve almost forgotten what it felt like. Truth to tell, I miss the chance to have those precious days be cathartic for me personally, as opposed to being focused on making them cathartic for others. The pressure on rabbis and cantors to “be at their best” during this season is enormous, for all the obvious reasons. As my nephew would say, “it is what it is.”

Accountants don’t enjoy April, and many rabbis have a love/hate relationship with September.

Some years ago, just about at this time of year after camp had ended but before school began, I took my younger children to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. I’m not big on the wilder amusement park rides, but my children love them, and I happily play the role of the person who “watches everyone’s stuff” while they go off to be turned upside down and inside out on a roller coaster.

As if it were yesterday, I can remember the roller coaster in Hershey Park. Most roller coasters begin slowly and build up speed as they move into their loops and spins. This one- not quite. There was a loud, audible countdown, and then the cars jerked forward with what looked like enormous force and speed and sent the riders hurtling into the first of many loops and revolutions.

As I congratulated myself for my good sense in not getting on that ride, I realized that, in a larger sense, I was living that ride in these days of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah. There was no audible countdown, but each passing day was bringing me one step closer to that physical and existential launch into the invariably intense and challenging month of Tishrei.

There’s always an eerie quiet in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah; this year even more so than the usual. Because Labor Day is so late into September, some of those rituals that invariably get tangled up with the holidays happened before them. Like so many others, we moved our daughter into her college dorm this week, and both my wife and I have had a chance to re-enter our work environments without Yom Tov breathing down our necks.

But every morning, when the synagogue’s yarhzeit list of that day is read at the conclusion of our minyan, I hear the countdown. “Today, on the fourteenth day of Elul, we remember…” And I think to myself that it’s time to get strapped in for the ride.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.